NBC released a memo from the Department of Justice that is supposed to convince (supposedly) rational people that there’s a working justification for the executive branch’s policy of killing it’s own citizens without all that pesky “due process” hippy crap.
I’ll point out that what’s making me angry is not the actions of NBC or their journalists, but the contents of the memo. In case you couldn’t tell.
The memo is probably longer than most want to read. The summary is that, basically, if an “informed, high-level” official decides that an individual poses an “imminent” threat of violence, and that it’s “infeasible,” and that “the operation would be carried out in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles,” then the president is allowed to obliterate that individual, along with anyone or anything in the vicinity. As The Onion puts it: “It’s important for the government to be able to murder me and any of my friends or family members whenever they please for reputed national security reasons.”
There’s so many problems with this. While the memo says this is about “senior” operators in al-Qa’ida, being a leader in that organization is not listed as a requirement. Nor, in fact, is being in al-Qa’ida at all. For that matter, neither is being a terrorist, or even a criminal, or even a suspect of having committed a crime. While we’re pointing out what’s not in the memo, it’s worth noting that the memo says this is about citizens in foreign territory, that isn’t listed as a requirement either.
This memo also fails to define “high-level” or “informed.” I guarantee that they play fast and loose with that.
What makes me so sure? Maybe you think I’m picking nits. Let me encourage you to rethink that perception. Why? The next part is a huge focus of the memo. So let me step back and approach this logically.
The memo says this person needs to pose an “imminent” threat. Naturally, as human beings who are at least semi-fluent in a language, we make assumptions that words mean something. Or at least that words signify something that means something. In this particular instance, we can make the assumption that “imminent” means “close at hand” or “happening in the very near future” or “not long now.”
Except, we can’t assume that.
This memo says we need to take a “broader” approach to what “imminent” means. Near as I can tell, the only thing the memo actually says is that “imminent” means… nothing. In stead of “near” future it means “some time” in the future, maybe. It spends pages talking about how there’s all kinds of non-specific modifiers to the immediacy required for a threat to be “imminent.”
I want to be speechless because of this. Unfortunately there’s too much presidential precedent. George W. Bush had no idea that the English language was used in the U.S. and instead spoke a mash of almost English words along with whatever sounds random neurons firing in his brain came up with. Half of me thinks he was an idiot for this. But considering how successful he was at gathering unprecedented power to his office in spite of hundreds of years of Constitutional freedoms, the other half of me thinks this was a calculated ploy to make us all think he was an idiot and therefore non-threatening. But Bush’s unrestrained molestation of the English language isn’t all I think of. His predecessor questioned the meaning of the word “is” with a straight face in a court of law — and even used the word in his question about it.
Sorry, Chomsky, American politics doesn’t care about any of your work. We’re just going to go ahead and go with words don’t signify anything at all, even if they used to.
Likewise with “infeasible.” The document takes less time stripping this word to nothing, but it does come up with a conclusion that “infeasible” means “not super easy.” I’m going to start using this word when my wife asks me to take out the trash, since I know have legal precedent to get out of doing something because I don’t want to make the best effort so I can’t be bothered.
As for being consistent with established laws of war, well, that almost makes me giggle. Because as a nation, we have a pretty terrible track record on this.
The memo is also careful to say that such an attack doesn’t contradict illegal search and seizure or due process because, reasons. Actually, that’s not accurate. It leaves out the “because, reasons” part. It doesn’t even pretend there’s a “because” involved with this. It doesn’t violate due process because we decided so.
So, given this, my understanding of what the DoJ thinks of this whole killing U.S. citizens is this:
If an executive-level official in specific parts of the executive branch, say, Secretary of State, or Defense, or even Education, maybe? Heck, we might as well even accept the word of Bob down in shipping for HUD – he’s been learning English for at least three weeks now. Anyway, if some guy says another dude is going to try to kill people in the U.S. soon, or maybe damage something, or possibly scuff his shoes on a monument, or else he’s going to eventually, or he talked about it once, or maybe he looked like he was going to do it, or else the guy is bored and just wants to blow someone up for kicks. If the guy says that about the dude, and it’s not possible, or practical, or I just got up to get a beer from the fridge and organizing a mission to capture the dude is just too difficult and I can’t be bothered. If the guy says that about the dude, and it’s hard to catch the dude, and we give a passing nod to the idea that the international community generally frowns on the indiscriminate killing of… anyone — well then we can blow him up along with the whole city he’s in.
Or to reduce it to it’s simplest verbage, the legal conditions for killing a U.S. citizen boil down to “Kinda feel like blowing a dude up.”
If you don’t trust me to analyze this (and who would?), you can see some commentary by persons with more expert legal expertise.