Our ninja president: Obama arrogates to himself the power to kill Americans

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Remember how outraged liberals said they were when they learned that three al-Qaida bigwigs were waterboarded? If so, you may wonder why liberals haven't been more vocal about the vague criteria the Obama administration uses to justify killing American citizens suspected of terrorism.

Waterboarding is an "enhanced interrogation technique" in which the prisoner is strapped to a board, his feet above his head. After the prisoner's face is covered with cellophane or a towel, water is poured onto it. Water doesn't actually enter the prisoner's mouth or nose, but the prisoner feels as if he is drowning.

Waterboarding creates so much panic that few can resist it. CIA officers and military personnel waterboarded as part of their training break, on average, in just 14 seconds.

After they were waterboarded, the al-Qaida big shots disclosed information that prevented attacks on Los Angeles and London, according to intelligence officials. A scene in the movie "Zero Dark Thirty" indicates that Osama bin Laden's hideout was located in part by information obtained from waterboarding.

No matter, say outraged liberals. Waterboarding is torture. When we use their techniques, the terrorists win. Our reputation is besmirched; our civil liberties endangered.

To describe firsthand how awful it is, several journalists arranged to be waterboarded. Which supports the argument that waterboarding isn't torture. No journalists have volunteered to have their fingernails pulled out or electrodes attached to their genitals.

Torture, according to Merriam-Webster, is "the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing or wounding) to punish, coerce or afford sadistic pleasure." Federal law defines torture as "severe mental or physical pain," and mental pain as "prolonged mental harm." Because waterboarding inflicts neither physical pain nor prolonged mental harm, it isn't torture, said the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration.

My point isn't that liberals are wrong about waterboarding (though they are). But if their concerns about waterboarding were genuine, they'd be more alarmed by journalist Michael Isikoff's revelations on NBC about the Obama administration's legal justifications for killing American citizens with drones.

The Justice Department "white paper" on which Mr. Isikoff based his story "portrays an administration prepared to justify the killing of U.S. citizens on gut feelings," said Reuters columnist Jack Shafer.

A federal judge agrees. The Obama administration's reasoning has been set out "in cryptic and imprecise ways, generally without citing any statute or court decision that justifies its conclusions," wrote Judge Colleen McMahon last month.

The Bush administration briefed congressional leaders on the waterboarding of the al-Qaida bigwigs. (Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was caught in an embarrassing lie when she denied this was so.) But the first time members of Congress saw the Justice Department memo on drones was when Mr. Isikoff appended a copy to his report.

The New York Times and the ACLU have sued to gain access to Justice Department memoranda on drone strikes. Judge McMahon said she was unable to order their release because of "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 the conclusion a secret."

The president finally relented and released the memos to congressional intelligence committees the night before last week's confirmation hearing of his nominee for CIA director, John Brennan.

Civilian deaths from drone strikes are in "the single digits" each year, the administration claims. But outside groups (relying on arguably specious sources) claim up to 15 percent of the 2,500 to 3,000 people killed in them have been noncombatants.

Drone strikes dodge the difficult questions about detention which plagued President Bush. But they do terror suspects rather more harm than waterboarding would. And it's difficult to interrogate a dead terrorist.

There's no evidence drones have been used to kill any U.S. citizen that we all wouldn't agree is a terrorist. But it is unconstitutional as well as unwise for the government to kill a U.S. citizen without "due process of law." That President Obama asserts the power to do this without oversight from Congress should alarm genuine civil libertarians.

As James Joyner of the Atlantic Council put it: "The notion that the government can compile a list of citizens for killing, not tell anyone who's on it or how they got there, is simply un-American."

jackkelly

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).


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