Government cannot ignore due process
A document from the U.S. Justice Department, made public Monday by NBC News, is disturbing evidence of government overstating its powers while ignoring consitutional protections for its citizens. It should provoke outrage from all U.S. citizens, regardless of their ideological views.
In the document, written sometime in 2011, the Justice Department argues that the United States can legally kill a U.S. citizen on foreign soil if a “high-level official” of the government determines the citizen is “a senior, operations leader” of al-Qaida or an associated group and the person poses “an imminent threat” to this country. “Imminent threat” is so broadly defined that it doesn’t have to include a specific attack planned against the United States.
We’re all for protecting this country from terrorist attacks, even if that means using drones to find and attack terrorist hideouts.
But U.S. citizens are protected by the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which says in part, no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” Due process requires an indictment or affidavit charging someone with a crime, plus a trial to determine guilt.
Under the Justice Department document, those “high-level” government officials can act as judge, jury and executioner, simply by declaring a U.S. citizen abroad is “a senior operational leader” of a terrorist group and that he or she poses some amorphous notion of an imminent threat.
If they’re wrong, well, too bad. The citizen’s right to due process, including the right to appeal, was terminated the minute a drone’s weapons were locked on that person.
That’s what occurred in September 2011, when U.S. born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a drone attack. Awlaki was accused of working with al-Qaida in Yemen. He had no opportunity to legally challenge that accusation. He was simply executed.
There is a very real and horrifying, slippery-slope argument here. After all, drones are increasingly used for surveillance by law enforcement agencies across the U.S. And, while the Justice Department document talks of killing citizens overseas, the same argument could be made for people in the country.
What if high-level government officials decided members of a gun-rights group or an environmental-activist organization posed an “imminent threat,” even if no hostile action was planned? What’s to stop them from using the same reasoning to take out the leaders of such groups?
The issue will likely come up this week in Senate confirmations for John Brennan to head the CIA. But senators need to do more than raise questions. They should demand the Obama administration repudiate the reasoning of this document and afford all U.S. citizens due-process rights.