I identify fairly strongly as a liberal (although this was not always the case), so perhaps it’s not a huge surprise that one of the most frustrating phenomena I experience as a politics junkie is watching liberal leading lights latch on to stupid ideas. Today, for instance, whoever was running the Mother Jones Twitter account sent out this:
The Obama administration explains when it’s allowed to kill you. mojo.ly/w6N3F0
— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) March 6, 2012
The link points, as you can see, to Adam’s Serwer’s latest piece, When the US Government Can Kill You, Explained. His lede:
On Monday, the Obama administration explained when it’s allowed to kill you.
The piece, which discusses Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech Monday on the legal reasoning behind the administration’s national security policy, is accompanied by a stock photo of U.S. Air Force “Reaper” drone armed with guided HELLFIRE missiles — the sort used to kill the American-born al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki.
I’ve admired Serwer’s work for a couple years now, and am a Mother Jones subscriber. This post – and posts like it – are a severe disappointment to me, because it demonstrates the fact that (at least some) liberal publications are not above the kind of base fear-mongering that we so often excoriate the right for.
One of my first posts for this blog was on Anwar al-Awlaki in light of last year’s National Defense Authorization Act. In it, I cited Serwer’s analysis of the bill as recommended reading, because I thought (and still think) that he did an excellent job of correcting misperceptions about the bill. From his piece, dated Dec. 16, 2011:
So it’s simply not true, as the Guardian wrote yesterday, that the the bill “allows the military to indefinitely detain without trial American terrorism suspects arrested on US soil who could then be shipped to Guantánamo Bay.” When the New York Times editorial page writes that the bill would “strip the F.B.I., federal prosecutors and federal courts of all or most of their power to arrest and prosecute terrorists and hand it off to the military,” or that the “legislation could also give future presidents the authority to throw American citizens into prison for life without charges or a trial,” they’re simply wrong.
This is a different NDAA provision than the one that reauthorized the president to use lethal force against certain “named persons” in the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (or “AUMF”) passed by congress shortly after the terror attacks of September 2001. However, those provisions, like the ones covering detention, remain largely unchanged by the latest NDAA. I had thought Serwer knew this. But here he is today:
Who decides when an American citizen has had enough due process and the Hellfire missile fairy pays them a visit? Presumably the group of top national security officials—that, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, decides who is targetable and forwards its findings to the president, who gives final approval.
Okay. We can definitely have a discussion about whether or not the U.S. government can legally target American citizens in military actions against identified enemies.
But what does that have to do with drones? It seems they always come up whenever this subject is discussed. Indeed, the Washington Post ran an editorial yesterday in response to Holder’s speech which, while being generally positive about the attorney general’s content, was titled “It’s time to release the drone memos.” Drone memos? The Post’s editors mean the legal reasoning behind the killing of al-Awlaki — but why call those the “drone memos”? Are the means used to kill an American citizen on foreign soil more important than the legal reasoning the administration used to justify the ends? Serwer’s post, as noted above, is accompanied by a photo of a drone aircraft. Here he is again, later in today’s piece:
If the standards for when the government can send a deadly flying robot to vaporize you sound a bit subjective, that’s because they are.
But by this point in his article, Serwer had already acknowledged the fact that his headline promised more than he could actually deliver. “There won’t be any drone strikes in Denver anytime soon,” he points out, almost as an aside, earlier in the piece.
This is true — between the AUMF, NDAA, and existing law, the military is triply prohibited from using any kind of force against citizens on American soil. What’s also true is that the military has never been barred from exercising lethal force against enemies identified in authorizations for the use of military force, even if those enemies happen to include American members.
Holder made this point in his Monday speech at Northwestern University in Illinois. Here’s what he said, as quoted by the The People’s View:
Furthermore, it is entirely lawful – under both United States law and applicable law of war principles – to target specific senior operational leaders of al Qaeda and associated forces. This is not a novel concept. In fact, during World War II, the United States tracked the plane flying Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto – the commander of Japanese forces in the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway – and shot it down specifically because he was on board. As I explained to the Senate Judiciary Committee following the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the same rules apply today.
Some have called such operations “assassinations.” They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced. Assassinations are unlawful killings. Here, for the reasons I have given, the U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self defense against a leader of al Qaeda or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful — and therefore would not violate the Executive Order banning assassination or criminal statutes.
This has nothing to do with where that leader or supporter was born, or what their citizenship status is. If that mattered, American soldiers would have to ask everyone they ever shot, shelled, or bombed whether they had U.S. passports. Just so that there’s no misunderstanding, here it is again: citizenship has no bearing on whether you can be engaged by the U.S. military, and it never, ever has.
Now, on to drones. Drones are remotely-controlled aerial vehicles that can be used either for mid- to long-range surveillance and intelligence-gathering or for “delivering ordnance on” (also known as “bombing”) targets identified by that intelligence. Drones like the Predator and Reaper are useful because they can be outfitted with a wide variety of weapons and sensor equipment, they can be fielded relatively cheaply, and, most importantly, reduce the risk soldiers face from hostile action. In this, they are like every other technological advance on the battlefield — we make more effective bullets, longer-range rifles, better-armored and faster tanks, night-vision goggles and rifle scopes, and tougher body armor. These are tools commanders use to help accomplish their objectives more efficiently and with less loss of friendly life — priorities that every commander has had since before Agamemnon knew where Boeotia was.
So drones are simply the battlefield expression of emerging technology. There may be a discussion to have about their value and the effects they have on war psychology, but that is a completely different discussion than the provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act and national security policy Holder was discussing today require. Bringing them up is intellectually dishonest, disingenuous, and prejudicial to the discussion. I’m disappointed to see so many liberal thinkers who I’ve praised in the past use this line of nonsense.
But it serves as a helpful reminder that liberals are sometimes willing to engage in the very same kind of dishonesty and fearmongering they enjoy pointing out on the right.