“Whatever disagreement there may be as to the scope of the phrase ‘due process of law,’ there can be no doubt that it embraces the fundamental conception of a fair trial, with opportunity to be heard.”
—Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., dissenting, Frank v. Magnum, 1915
When President Obama authorized a drone strike in Yemen that targeted and killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, the The New York Times (NYT) described the decision as “extremely rare, if not unprecedented[.]” Less than two-and-a-half years after the first targeted strike against a US citizen, however, and Obama appears poised to make that decision once again. Abdullah al-Shami, the nickname of an otherwise anonymous man alleged to be a top Al-Qaeda terrorist living in Pakistan, is the latest US citizen in the Administration’s cross-hairs. As Glenn Greenwald has written, these strikes against US citizens are being executed “[w]ithout any due process, transparency or oversight[.]” This week’s NYT article by Matt Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt about the potential killing of al-Shami—entitled “U.S. Militant, Hidden, Spurs Drone Debate”—disregard Greenwald’s concerns and focus on an entirely different debate. By avoiding questions about the constitutionality or transparency of drone strikes targeting US citizens, however, the NYT implicitly suggests those issues don’t matter. Here at the Fourth Estate Watch (FEW), we believe they do.
Mazzetti and Schmitt are correct when they state that the decision surrounding al-Shami’s fate “encapsulates some of the thorniest questions raised by the targeted killing program that Mr. Obama has embraced as president,” but their article somehow manages to miss all of them. Crucially, for example, the authors ask “under what circumstances the government may kill American citizens without a trial,” instead of asking whether the government can kill American citizens without a trial. The second question is essential because the Fifth Amendment states that “no person” shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” which generally requires that the accused be afforded the right to examine the evidence against him, the right to counsel, the right to examine witnesses, the right to have his case heard before an impartial tribunal, etc. Under the Obama Administration’s targeted killing program, by contrast, you can be “deprived of life” after a group of anonymous government officials decide to authorize a drone strike against you (which is what happened to al-Awlaki). How, then, can President Obama’s targeted killing of US citizens be said to square with the Fifth Amendment? In the case of al-Shami, the Obama Administration hasn’t even disclosed his real name, notwithstanding Obama’s previous promise of an “unprecedented level of openness in Government.” How can the government be “open” in any meaningful sense if it can authorize a drone strike against a US citizen abroad in near-total secrecy?
Instead of addressing the constitutionality of targeted killings of US citizens, though, the NYT prefers to ask “whether the CIA or the Pentagon ought to be the dominant agency running America’s secret wars[.]” That strikes us as a secondary concern, something far less critical than questions relating to overall credibility and accountability. One of the anonymous U.S. officials interviewed for the article, for example, asserts that “[w]e have clear and convincing evidence that [al-Shami is] involved in the production and distribution of I.E.D.’s” without offering anything concrete in support. Given that the NYT has previously apologized for part of its reporting in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, stating that US government claims about Saddam Hussein were “allowed to stand unchallenged,” one wonders why the paper published the official’s comment about al-Shami without asking for elaboration or corroboration. In 2004 the NYT lamented that “we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims” made by the US government, yet in 2014 the paper seems unable to apply that lesson to the targeted killing of US citizens.
The mistake may have far-reaching implications. If and until journalists begin to question the government aggressively regarding the constitutional concerns over the targeted killing of US citizens, this once-rare event will only proliferate. After all, the NYT itself tells us the debate on whether to kill al-Shami “comes less than a year after Mr. Obama announced new guidelines to tighten the rules for carrying out lethal drone operations” (emphasis ours). Let’s keep in mind that what we are talking about is the US government’s alleged authority to kill a US citizen without offering that person any opportunity to examine evidence, consult counsel, or present their case. That is an extreme proposition, and that it may soon happen twice in under three years should startle everyone. And not only do Obama’s new guidelines not appear to have tightened anything at all, we don’t even know what those guidelines are since they are kept hidden from public scrutiny.
With the targeted killing of US citizens wrapped in so much secrecy, it is perhaps unsurprising that the NYT concludes that “[i]t is unclear what Mr. Obama’s position is on whether Mr. Shami should be targeted.” But perhaps the President need not speak for us to know his position. Given that he has already authorized the targeted killing of one US citizen (al-Awlaki) and that he is currently weighing the decision whether to do so again, it is clear that the President believes the US government can satisfy the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment by unilaterally, and in secret, deciding whether a US citizen abroad should be placed on a list for targeted killing. That tells us everything we need to know.