“What lies at the nexus of Obama’s targeted drone killings, his self-serving leaks, and his aggressive prosecution of whistleblowers is a president who believes himself above the law, and seems convinced that he alone has a preternatural ability to determine right from wrong.”—Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran Foreign Service Officer at the State Department
Since the early days of our republic, we have operated under the principle that no one is above the law. As Thomas Paine observed in Common Sense, “in America, the law is king. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.” Several years later, John Adams, seeking to reinforce this important principle, declared in the Massachusetts Constitution that they were seeking to establish “a government of laws and not of men.”
The history of our nation over the past 200 years has been the history of a people engaged in a constant struggle to maintain that tenuous balance between the rule of law—in our case, the United States Constitution—and the government leaders entrusted with protecting it, upholding it and abiding by it. At various junctures, when that necessary balance has been thrown off by overreaching government bodies or overly ambitious individuals, we have found ourselves faced with a crisis of constitutional proportions. Each time, we have taken the painful steps needed to restore our constitutional equilibrium.
Now, once again, we find ourselves skating dangerously close to becoming a nation ruled not by laws but by men— and infallible, imperfect men, at that. Yet this latest crisis did not happen overnight. Its seeds were sown in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, when fear-addled Americans started selling their freedoms cheaply, bit by bit, for phantom promises of security. From torture at CIA black site prisons and Abu Ghraib abuses to extraordinary renditions, from TSA body scanners and warrantless wiretaps to the PATRIOT Act, Americans have failed to be outraged by the government’s repeated violations of the rule of law. In this way, as the “war on terror” has unfolded beyond our wildest imaginings— from the barbaric treatment of foreign detainees at American- run prisons to the technological arsenal being used by the U.S. government to monitor and control its citizens— our rights have taken a meteoric nosedive in inverse proportion to the government’s rapidly expanding powers.
The New York Times’ recent revelation that President Obama, operating off a government “kill list,” has been personally directing who should be targeted for death by military drones (unmanned aerial assault vehicles) merely pushes us that much closer to that precipitous drop-off to authoritarianism. Should we fail to recognize and rectify the danger in allowing a single individual to declare himself the exception to the rule of law and assume the role of judge, jury, and executioner, we will have no one else to blame when we plunge once and for all into the abyss that is tyranny.
Declaring Obama’s actions “without precedent in presidential history,” the New York Times describes a process whereby every few weeks, Obama and approximately a hundred members of his national security team gather for their “Terror Tuesday” meetings in which they hand pick the next so-called national security “threat” to die by way of the American military/CIA drone program. Obama signs off personally on about a third of the drone strikes: all of the ones in Yemen and Somalia, and the risky ones in Pakistan.
These “Terror Tuesday” sessions run counter to every constitutional and moral principle that has guided America since its inception. It’s not only suspected terrorists whose death warrants are being personally signed by the president but innocent civilians geographically situated near a strike zone, as well, whether or not they have any ties to a suspected terrorist. As an anonymous government official on Obama’s drone campaign observed, “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.” Indeed, Obama’s first authorized drone attack in Yemen led to the deaths of 14 women and 21 children, and only one al-Qaeda affiliate. Incredibly, the government actually justifies these civilian deaths by suggesting that the individuals must be “militants” or “combatants” simply because of their proximity to the target.
No matter what is said to the contrary, the Constitution does not in any way provide for the president to engage in such acts, even under the auspices of his role as Commander in Chief. In fact, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process, intended to protect citizens in the event that the government attempts to overreach its authority, assure every American citizen that before the government can imprison them or put them to death, they have a right to hear the charges being levied against them, review the evidence, and be treated to a fair and impartial trial by a judge or jury.
Thus, perhaps hoping to distract and divert the public’s attention from the core issue at hand—namely, the fact that the president has become a law unto himself—the Obama administration has launched an investigation to discover who leaked the information about the kill list. The media, in typical fashion, have taken the bait. However, no amount of obfuscation can alter the fact that Obama, by his actions, is circumventing the Constitution, especially as it pertains to the rights of American citizens. Indeed, in a decision he claims was “an easy one,” Obama has already killed two American citizens in this fashion: Anwar al-Awlaki, an American cleric living in Yemen who served as a propagandist for Al-Qaeda, and his 16-year-old son.
Yet with every passing day, the casualties are mounting— not just the innocent women and children abroad blown to smithereens by American missiles, but our Constitution, our increasingly fragile republic and our ability to trust that our government leaders will be accountable to abiding by the rule of law.
Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.