This Murderous Insanity!
Obama's Execution of the Drone War Should Terrify Even Drone
It's one thing to support killing militants, and quite another
to empower one man to do it in secret without checks or
By Conor Friedersdorf
July 14, 2012
Clearing House" --
Junod's latest masterpiece, "The
Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama,"
grapples at length with the unprecedented assassination program
that the United States has waged since 2009. "Your lethality is
expansive in both practice and principle; you are fighting
terrorism with a policy of preemptive execution, and claiming
not just the legal right to do so but the legal right to do so
in secret," the piece, addressed to the president himself,
states. "The American people, for the most part, have no idea
who has been killed, and why; the American people -- and for
that matter, most of their representatives in Congress -- have
no idea what crimes those killed in their name are supposed to
have committed, and have been told that they are not entitled to
Notice the multiple objections that the essay sets forth. It
expresses unease with the mere fact of so much killing. But it
concerns itself as much with process. The Obama Administration
isn't just assassinating an unprecedented number of individuals.
It is doing so in a secret, unaccountable manner that lacks
transparency or a meaningful check on the power of the
President Obama's defenders conveniently ignore all but one of
Andrew Sullivan -- again claiming, as if it matters, that
Obama is morally superior to his predecessor -- says, "As to the
drone war, what would Junod have Obama do? The alternatives are
either long-term occupation of Jihadist-spawning countries, or a
decision to end all military responses to Jihadist terror, or a
more focused drone campaign that can minimize civilian
casualties while taking out key enemies planning to kill Western
and Muslim civilians. I harbor severe worries about the
unintended consequences of the drone war, and deeply regret
civilian casualties. But there were around 100,000 civilian
casualties caused by the Iraq occupation."
I do not concede that America's alternatives are "cause mass
casualties by invading foreign countries" or "conduct a
widespread assassination program," and find it remarkable that
Obama supporters have persuaded themselves that those are the
only options available to America.
But say that frequent drone strikes were an
imperative. That hypothetical hardly implies that the particular
done campaign we are waging is prudent and lawful. Although
Sullivan regularly evades this point, a world where drone
strikes were imperative would still raise vital questions about
the particular way that the drone war ought to be waged.
Should the criteria for being put on a kill list remain secret,
or should there be consistent standards that are promulgated and
debated? Does the Constitutional guarantee of due process and
Article III treason provisions imply a judicial role when
American citizens are placed on a kill list, or is the Obama
Administration correct that intra-executive branch deliberations
can satisfy the requirement of due process? Should the strikes
be carried out by the U.S. military or the CIA? In determining
how many of the people we kill are innocent civilians, should we
presume that all dead males of military age were in fact enemies
of the United States?
Most important of all, is it imprudent to give this president
and all future presidents the unchecked power to kill in secret?
Or does human nature and the framework of checks and balances
devised by America's founders suggest that multiple layers of
oversight is the wiser course?
The Obama Administration has answered these questions
indefensibly, but the president's defenders go right on
defending his drone program with the inadequate argument that it
is theoretically justified.
"As to the drone war," Sullivan
asks, "what would Junod have Obama do?" The essayist is on
record with one proposal:
Obama has created the Lethal Presidency by insisting he that
he has been given the power to kill, in secret, anyone who
is plotting against Americans or American interests, even if
he or she is an American citizen.
will be very difficult to constrain that power, no matter
who is president. But if the Lethal Presidency is going to
have any accountability at all, we should demand that
Congress pass a law stating that if the administration kills
an American citizen, it should not be able to keep all the
particulars secret. The administration should be compelled
to say who it killed and why.
my own notions of what I'd have Obama do. If we're presuming a
world where a widespread campaign of drone assassinations is a
given, I'd have him build various safeguards into the program
that limit the unchecked power he now recklessly claims as the
executive's right. I'd have him anticipate the sorts of abuses
that he worried about as a senator, demonstrating that he damn
well understands them. I'd ask him to stop using the secrecy he
has created to elevate defenders of his procedures and silence
critics who express important misgivings.
I'm tired of Obama defenders who acknowledge that these
criticisms have merit and that they'd like to see some of these
reforms implemented, even as they continue defending drone
strikes absent any reforms. If they must support an
unprecedented campaign of assassination with no apparent end,
they ought to at least make it contingent on the implementation
of basic safeguards that they damn well know to be prudent and
reasonable limits on the power of the presidency.
Says Sonny Bunch,
zooming back to a larger issue, "there is something weirdly,
madly galling about people arguing that pretending to drown
someone who has information about an imminent terrorist attack
is a Hague-worthy offense while blowing them the f--k up
isn't that big of a deal. It's not a big deal even when they're
American citizens still afforded protection by the
When Bunch says "pretending to drown someone," he is talking
about torturing prisoners by blindfolding them, strapping them
to a board, and forcing water into their lungs until they fill
up and create the sensation of drowning, one of the most
terrifying feelings to which a human can be subjected. Though
Obama hasn't prosecuted anyone for carrying out that practice,
it is in fact torture, and until the United States did it the
notion that it might result in a war-crimes trial didn't trouble
any Americans. I still wish that the leaders who made America a
torturing nation would be held legally accountable, but I must
say that I'd rather be waterboarded than blown up, and Obama's
drone campaign has killed more innocents than Bush's
interrogation program tortured.
That liberal hypocrisy is of trivial importance compared to the
task of safeguarding the country against presidential abuses
never seems to occur to Bunch, and along with his fellow
conservatives he is making the same mistake as Sullivan:
allowing the fact that he believes a practice is necessary and
justified to blind him to the importance implementing all
policies so that no one individual is operating beyond the
checks and balances to which we owe our liberty.
This article was originally published at
© 2012 by The Atlantic Monthly Group.