Obama officials refuse to say if assassination power extends to US soil

John Brennan with Barack ObamaBy Glenn Greenwald

The Justice Department “white paper” purporting to authorize Obama’s power to extrajudicially execute US citizens was leaked three weeks ago. Since then, the administration – including the president himself and his nominee to lead the CIA, John Brennan – has been repeatedly asked whether this authority extends to US soil, i.e., whether the president has the right to execute US citizens on US soil without charges. In each instance, they have refused to answer.

Brennan has been asked the question several times as part of his confirmation process. Each time, he simply pretends that the question has not been asked, opting instead to address a completely different issue. Here’s the latest example from the written exchange he had with Senators after his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee; after referencing the DOJ “white paper”, the Committee raised the question with Brennan in the most straightforward way possible:

brennan q-and-a

Obviously, that the US has not and does not intend to engage in such acts is entirely non-responsive to the question that was asked: whether they believe they have the authority to do so. To the extent any answer was provided, it came in Brennan’s next answer. He was asked:

Could you describe the geographical limits on the Administration’s conduct drone strikes?”

Brennan’s answer was that, in essence, there are no geographic limits to this power: “we do not view our authority to use military force against al-Qa’ida and associated forces as being limited to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan.” He then quoted Attorney General Eric Holder as saying: “neither Congress nor our federal courts has limited the geographic scope of our ability to use force to the current conflict in Afghanistan” (see Brennan’s full answer here).

Revealingly, this same question was posed to Obama not by a journalist or a progressive but by a conservative activist, who asked if drone strikes could be used on US soil and “what will you do to create a legal framework to make American citizens within the United States believe know that drone strikes cannot be used against American citizens?” Obama replied that there “has never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil” – which, obviously, doesn’t remotely answer the question of whether he believes he has the legal power to do so. He added that “the rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States”, but these “rules” are simply political choices the administration has made which can be changed at any time, not legal constraints. The question – do you as president believe you have the legal authority to execute US citizens on US soil on the grounds of suspicions of Terrorism if you choose to do so? – was one that Obama, like Brennan, simply did not answer.

As always, it’s really worth pausing to remind ourselves of how truly radical and just plainly unbelievable this all is. What’s more extraordinary: that the US Senate is repeatedly asking the Obama White House whether the president has the power to secretly order US citizens on US soil executed without charges or due process, or whether the president and his administration refuse to answer? That this is the “controversy” surrounding the confirmation of the CIA director – and it’s a very muted controversy at that – shows just how extreme the degradation of US political culture is.

As a result of all of this, GOP Senator Rand Paul on Thursday sent a letter to Brennan vowing to filibuster his confirmation unless and until the White House answers this question. Noting the numerous times this question was previously posed to Brennan and Obama without getting an answer, Paul again wrote:

Do you believe that the President has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a US citizen on US soil, and without trial?”

After adding that “I believe the only acceptable answer to this is no”, Paul wrote: “Until you directly and clearly answer, I plan to use every procedural option at my disposal to delay your confirmation and bring added scrutiny to this issue.”

Yesterday, in response to my asking specifically about Paul’s letter, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado said that while he is not yet ready to threaten a filibuster, he “shares those concerns”. He added: “Congress needs a better understanding of how the Executive Branch interprets the limits of its authorities.”

Indeed it does. In fact, it is repellent to think that any member of the Senate Intelligence Committee – which claims to conduct oversight over the intelligence community – would vote to confirm Obama’s CIA director while both the president and the nominee simply ignore their most basic question about what the president believes his own powers to be when it comes to targeting US citizens for assassination on US soil.

Udall also pointed to this New York Times article from yesterday detailing the growing anger on the part of several Democratic senators, including him, over the lack of transparency regarding the multiple legal opinions that purport to authorize the president’s assassination power. Not only does the Obama administration refuse to make these legal memoranda public – senators have been repeatedly demanding for more than full year to see them – but they only two weeks ago permitted members to look at two of those memos, but “were available to be viewed only for a limited time and only by senators themselves, not their lawyers and experts.” Said Udall in response to my questions yesterday: “Congress needs to fulfill its oversight function. This can’t happen when members only have a short time to review complicated legal documents — as I did two weeks ago — and without any expert staff assistance or access to delve more deeply into the details.”

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