I thought we were done with "death panels" after the health care debate, but as the New York Times reported yesterday, Obama has his own 100-person "death panel" made up of members of the ever-expanding national security state.
It is the strangest of bureaucratic rituals: Every week or so, more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die.
While the Times calls it a "bureaucratic ritual," a panel of suits deciding who to kill next sounds more like an organized crime ring, with Obama as the mob boss insisting on signing off on every death. John O. Brennan is like the consigliere. The Times' sources – "three dozen of [Obama's] current and former advisers" – imply that Obama's tight hold on decisions about who the U.S. should kill without charge or trial makes Obama morally responsible:
A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.
It could also make him a psychopathic dictator whose favorite part of being president is heading up the "death panel," but we'll never know, considering that the Obama administration continues to claim in court that it "can neither confirm or deny" the existence of the drone program. BEFORE the commenters jump down my throat about calling Obama a "psychopathic dictator," please read what I wrote - I am not saying Obama is a "dictator" - the point is we don't know the official policies, reasoning behind, or criteria of the death panels - because this is all occurring in secret. Americans cannot go to the U.S. Code or case law and learn the criteria for summary execution. The officials on these death panels are
UNELECTED, except Obama and Biden
How are we to know if they are dictators or democrats? Or if the process for deciding death is fair or subject to the daily whims of one powerful person?
Looking to the supposed "criteria" for getting on Obama's hit list only complicates matters. TheTimes has Obama declaring that decision to kill American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki without charge, trial, or any due process was "an easy one."
In his public speech about the officially unconfirmed program, Brennan espoused supposed criteria the "death panel" and Obama use to decide who to kill:
(1) Brennan's first criterion was that the target have some particularized plan to attack the U.S., insisting that
. . . the mere possibility that a member of al-Qa’ida might try to attack us at some point in the future
is not enough to warrant a drone strike.
(2) Brennan then suggested that a drone assassination would be a appropriate if an
. . . individual is himself an operative—in the midst of actually training for or planning to carry out attacks against U.S. interests.
(3) Brennan's third criterion was that
the individual possesses unique operational skills that are being leveraged in a planned attack.
Yesterday, the Times revealed that Brennan has still more criteria.
 the infeasibility of capture,  the certainty of the intelligence base,  the imminence of the threat. . .
The targeted killing of al-Awlaki meets none of these criteria. There is no credible evidence that al-Awlaki did anything more than generally advancing propaganda and indicating a desire to support al-Qaeda. A desire to support a terrorist group is not a particularized plan of attack or an imminent threat.
The justifications for assassinating al-Awlaki that the Obama administration fed to the media were:
* the Underwear Bomber stayed in Awlaki's house while the attack was planned;
* Awlaki helped write the Underwear Bomber's "martyrdom" video statement;
* Awlaki introduced the Underwear Bomber to a man who designed the explosive device; and
* the Underwear Bomber was inspired by Awlaki's extremist videos.
None of these justifications constitute a particularized plan to attack the U.S. or an imminent threat - criteria numbers 1 & 5. In fact, all of them happened in the past, despite the fact that Brennan claimed in his speech that drones strikes are not about "punishing terrorists for past crimes; we are not seeking vengeance." Al-Awlaki fails Brennan's second criterion as no one has ever asserted that al-Awlaki was himself an operative, only that he supported operations through his propaganda. And he fails to meet the third criterion as well. Since when is producing hateful videos and advancing abhorrent principles a "unique operational skill"? As for the infeasibility of capture - there is no evidence the U.S. even tried to a capture al-Awlaki, much less found capture impossible. The "certainty of the intelligence base" criterion is a misnomer in itself, as the intelligence community recognizes its approach is imperfect, but al-Awlaki fails on that criterion as well. In fact, many experts saw the West as blowing al-Awlaki's influence far out of proportion.
After al-Awlaki's assassination, the Obama administration refused to release the secret Justice Department memo to drawing criticism from civil liberties groups, the Washington Post editorial board, and the the most pro-secrecy Bush-era officials alike, including former NSA & CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden:
“This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president, and that’s not sustainable,” Mr. Hayden said. “I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret O.L.C. memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe.”
Obama's "Whac-A-Mole" approach – as the the Times dubbed it – of summarily executing suspected terrorists cannot exist without "whacking" a few wrong "moles," but apparently Obama is entirely comfortable with the errors:
. . . Mr. Daley, the former chief of staff. “The president accepts as a fact that a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen, and to him, that calls for a more judicious process.”
Presumably one of those errors was the killing of al-Awlaki's 16-year-old American son. If the Obama administration would have the courage to officially acknowledge the existence of the drone program - instead of speechifying on it and selectively leaking details to the media - the American public would be able to ask their President if the decision to kill that American child was also "an easy one."
Speaking of errors, don't miss Glenn Greenwald's must-read piece on the fuzzy math the administration uses to calculate civilian deaths.
Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.