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How Many Americans are Targeted for Assassination?

by Glenn Greenwald

When The Washington Post's Dana Priest first revealed (in passing) back in January that the Obama administration had compiled a hit list of American citizens targeted for assassination, she wrote that "as of several months ago, the CIA list included three U.S. citizens."  In April, both the Post and the NYT confirmed that the administration had specifically authorized the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki.  Today, The Washington Times' Eli Lake has an interview with Obama's top Terrorism adviser John Brennan in which Brennan strongly suggests that the number of U.S. citizens targeted for assassination could actually be "dozens":

Dozens of Americans have joined terrorist groups and are posing a threat to the United States and its interests abroad, the president's most senior adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security said Thursday. . . . "There are, in my mind, dozens of U.S. persons who are in different parts of the world, and they are very concerning to us," said John O. Brennan, deputy White House national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism. . . .

"If a person is a U.S. citizen, and he is on the battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq trying to attack our troops, he will face the full brunt of the U.S. military response," Mr. Brennan said. "If an American person or citizen is in a Yemen or in a Pakistan or in Somalia or another place, and they are trying to carry out attacks against U.S. interests, they also will face the full brunt of a U.S. response. And it can take many forms."

Nobody -- or at least not me -- disputes the right of the U.S. or any other country to kill someone on an actual battlefield during war without due process.  That's just obvious, but that's not remotely what Brennan is talking about, and it's not remotely what this assassination program is about.  Indeed, Brennan explicitly identified two indistinguishable groups of American citizens who "will face the full brunt of a U.S. response":  (1) those "on the battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq"; and (2) those "in a Yemen or in a Pakistan or in Somalia or another place."  In other words, the entire world is a "battlefield" -- countries where there is a war and countries where there isn't -- and the President's "battlefield" powers, which are unlimited, extend everywhere.  That theory -- the whole world is a battlefield, even the U.S. -- was the core premise that spawned 8 years of Bush/Cheney radicalism, and it has been adopted in full by the Obama administration (indeed, it was that "whole-world-is-a-battlefield" theory which Elena Kagan explicitly endorsed during her confirmation hearing for Solicitor General).

Anyone who doubts that the Obama administration has adopted the core Terrorism policies of Bush/Cheney should listen to the concession -- or boast -- which Brennan himself made in his interview with Lake:

Mr. Brennan toward the end of the interview acknowledged that, despite some differences, there is considerable continuity between the counterterrorism policies of President Bush and President Obama. 

"There has been a lot of continuity of effort here from the previous administration to this one," he said. "There are some important distinctions, but sometimes there is too much made of those distinctions. We are building upon some of the good foundational work that has been done."

I would really like never to hear again the complaint that comparing Bush and Obama's Terrorism and civil liberties policies is unfair, invalid or hyperbolic given that Obama's top Terrorism adviser himself touts that comparison.  And that's anything but a surprise, given that Brennan was a Bush-era CIA official who defended many of the most controversial Bush/Cheney Terrorism policies.

I've written at length about the reasons why targeting American citizens for assassination who are far away from a "battlefield" is so odious and tyrannical, and I won't repeat those arguments here.  Suffice to say -- and I'm asking this literally -- if you're someone who believes, or are at least willing to acquiesce to the claim, that the U.S. President has the power to target your fellow citizens for assassination without a whiff of due process, what unchecked presidential powers wouldn't you support or acquiesce to?  I'd really like to hear an answer to that.  That's the question Al Gore asked about George Bush in a 2006 speech condemning Bush's claimed powers merely to eavesdrop on and imprison American citizens without charges, let alone assassinate them:  "If the answer is yes, then under the theory by which these acts are committed, are there any acts that can on their face be prohibited? . . . If the president has th[is] inherent authority. . . . then what can't he do?"  Can anyone defending this Obama policy answer that question?

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