Eileen McNamara: President Obama promised to run the most transparent White House in history. But we know as little now about targeted killings by drone strikes as we did about torture under George W. Bush. (U.S. Navy, Northrop Grumman, Alan Radecki/AP)

It is time for President Barack Obama to reconnect with his inner Constitutional scholar and release all internal documents that could illuminate his legal rationale for the killing of an American citizen suspected, but never convicted, of terrorism.

U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon all but begged the Obama Administration this week to explain more fully why a policy that targets suspected militants, including Americans, for “extrajudicial killing” is not a violation of U.S. and international law. She stopped short of ordering the Justice Department to release its internal memos because, she wrote, her hands were tied by “the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”

Obama’s assurances alone do not suffice in a democracy founded on open and spirited public debate.

Judge McMahon’s exasperation was evident throughout her decision denying requests under the Freedom of Information Act by The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union for information about the “targeted killing” by a drone missile in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011 of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric born in New Mexico. Samir Khan, a naturalized American citizen and Al Qaeda propagandist, died in the same strike.

The decision by the plaintiffs to appeal is an invitation for a vigorous and long-overdue public debate about the covert and deadly use of unmanned drone attacks as part of the U.S. war on terror, especially against American citizens.

Foreign-policy-by-assassination might make for compelling plot-lines on Showtime but more considered discussion ought to precede any decision to make “Homeland” the blueprint for U.S. anti-terrorism tactics. Otherwise, we risk the collective hangover we suffered under President George W. Bush when we surrendered our critical judgment and our principles to the visceral appeal of Jack Bauer’s taste for torture on “24.”

Only by examining the internal legal research memos from which the Obama Administration constructed its policy can the public truly assess whether such executions are really measures of last resort or the dawn of a new legal doctrine redefining the Fourth and Fifth amendments’ guarantees of due process. Obama’s assurances alone do not suffice in a democracy founded on open and spirited public debate.

Awlaki’s incendiary rhetoric certainly defined him as a foe of the U.S. Whether he was also an active Al Qaeda operative central to the botched attack by the so-called “underwear bomber” who tried to bring down a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day in 2009 was a question better resolved by trial in a U.S. courtroom than by missile in a Yemen street. At the very least, the American people are entitled to know exactly why the Obama Administration chose the latter course.

The decision by the plaintiffs to appeal is an invitation for a vigorous and long-overdue public debate about the covert and deadly use of unmanned drone attacks as part of the U.S. war on terror…

Relatives of the deceased men filed a wrongful death suit against the U.S. earlier this year so the demand for these memos are sure to resurface in federal court. Releasing them voluntarily on the eve of his inauguration to a second term would restore the promise of Obama’s first full day in office in 2009 when he vowed that “transparency and rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.”

It has been a pledge he has too often honored in the breach. The candidate who castigated George Bush for his reliance on secrecy to hide questionable covert activities became the president who hoisted the same shield to deny the public full access to information about the Bush Administration’s use of extraordinary rendition and the secret wiretapping of American citizens. His promise to err on the side of transparency in reviewing Freedom of Information Act requests has fallen far short of full accountability.

There are, to be sure, state secrets that must be kept. There is, however, no justification for the reflexive invocation of “national security” to keep the American people in the dark when their liberty, if not their very lives, hang in the balance.


Tags: Barack Obama, Law, Security

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  • RWB

    A few days before Christmas, the U.S. indicted three men at the Federal District courthouse in Brooklyn for plotting suicide bomb attacks. This is an extraordinary, almost unique case: none of the people or conduct has any connection to the U.S. The defendants are foreign nationals, captured by some African government ont their way to join up with al-Shabab, the Somali Islamist group. To be clear, there is no suggestion that they planned to target American nationals or facilities, or had even ever been to this country before.

    • Guest

      But our new President is a Constitutional Law scholar and a Nobel Peace Preize winnig

    • RWB

      But our new President is a Constitutional Law scholar and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He isn’t a blood thirsty cowboy Republican like that Bush guy. How is this possible?

  • RWB

    One last thought…

    “Secrecy is the keystone to all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy and censorship. When any government or church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man who has been hoodwinked in this fashion; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, whose mind is free. No, not the rack nor the atomic bomb, not anything. You can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.”
    ― Robert A. Heinlein

    • jayhoward

      Yep, it’s always good to cite a science fiction author as an expert on politics.

      • RWB


        So, despite everything they would otherwise agree with him on, the cognoscenti rage at Heinlein as they rage at Christie and call him names and more or less shame people into not reading him – because if they did read him, they might find out that he’s none of those things and find within his writings that thing that intellectuals today can’t face: hope for the future and a belief in the basic ability of the individual to live his own life within Western Culture.

        Read the whole article:

  • karenstowe

    I’m guessing there won’t be many left wingers making comments here. Cowards.

    • jayhoward

      Maybe you’re right. But you and your type would castigate him no matter what he said so your opinion isn’t worth much anyway.

    • Pointpanic

      Sorry to disappoint you karen but many leftists have been critical of obama’s policies since his first days in office. Many ,like me wqere torn between voting Green and voting for obama to keep the vile Romney out. I opted for the latter out of fear.But if you want to hear some left wing criticism of Obama , seek out Australian activist journalist Jon Pilger or Ralph Nader

  • X-Ray

    What’s the difference between a “kill” by a drone (unmanned vehicle) and a
    piloted bomber strike? The results are the same. Is it because the U.S. can do
    it and most others can’t? Or is it that it is somehow unfair or unchivalrous to
    use drones? The intelligence required to determine a target is the same in any

  • jayhoward

    I am a big Obama supporter but I too wish he would be more open about this other things. Nevertheless, he will never be worse than George Bush, a man who had his lawyers come up with a plan that read “it is lawful for the United States to crush the genitals of small children in full view of their parents if the parents might have information useful to the United States.” Imagine that. No mention of the guilt of the children. No mention that the parents are terrorists. Just that they MIGHT have information useful to the US. Tell me– after you’ve crushed the balls of a small boy or pithed the uterus of a small girl and it turns out the parents don’t know anything…how do you say you are sorry?

  • cyberfarer

    Karen, you are confusing Democrats with leftists. They’re not the same. The Left opposes all of the above and oppose it equally under Bush as well as Obama? Can the same be said about you rightists?