The recent white paper leaked to NBC appears to reveal the list of conditions the president says need to be satisfied before he may execute a US citizen without trial. These are as follows:
- That the individual in question is "...a senior operational leader of al-Qa'ida or an associated force of al-Qa'ida...".
- A "high-level official" of the US government has determined that the target "poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States".
- Capture is infeasible.
- The operation would be "conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principle.
- Asks the country where the target is located for permission and is given permission.
- Asks the country where the target is located for permission and is not given permission.
Likewise, capture is deemed "infeasible" if it involves "undue risk" to US personnel. What this means is presently unknown, however, given the Orwellian definitions used in the rest of the paper, "undue risk" probably translates to "any risk". Hence, this condition restricts nothing.
The most egregious crime against the English language, however, is the redefining of "imminent" to mean its opposite. According to the white paper, to declare a threat "imminent", no proof of any particular plan, attack, or scheme is needed. Nor is any information as to when an attack might occur required. Essentially, the Obama administration defines "imminent" as "this person might be planning something, someday". As such an "imminent" threat is generally implied by being a member of al-Qa'ida, condition 3 is not a restriction at all.
A number of the president's defenders cite the AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists) as granting the president the power to pursue and kill terrorists. However, such an argument ignores several key difficulties in counter-terrorism. Who decides someone is a terrorist, and how is such a determination made?
While the AUMF certainly gives the president power to kill terrorists, it is unreasonable to claim that it also grants him (or one of his flunkies) the right to denote US citizens (in a non-combat situation) as members of al-Qa'ida without judicial review. Given the plastic conditions the president needs to satisfy in order to execute a US citizen, once a citizen has been denoted as a member of al-Qa'ida, the other conditions are (essentially) automatically satisfied. As a result, being denoted a member of al-Qa'da is equivalent to a death sentence.
During the Bush administration, any number of accused terrorists were found, after more information was gathered, to not be terrorists. These sorry individuals could be compensated (or at least released) following such revelations. Unfortunately, under current counter-terrorism doctrine, these cases of mistaken affiliation would result in death, not imprisonment. As death is not a reversible condition, something beyond the president's (or his adviser's) say-so should be required. This something is a public court, where evidence can be weighed by those whose careers are not dominated by the irrational fears of the mob.
To those that object to an open judicial process (perhaps out of fear), I can only respond: