The argument, of course, is that we are at war with al-Qaeda’s terrorists — one that Congress authorized — and thus the president is free to track them down and attack them anywhere in the world, even if they are American citizens. To enforce this, the U.S. has Special Operations forces in some 60 to 75 countries and has unleashed drones in at least five.
The administration is at pains to suggest that no one is targeted for death until after extensive review, internal checks and balances and administrative “due process” of a sort. But this rationale is refuted by what we know from the administration’s own limited releases of information. Officials distinguish between “personality strikes” — which are targeted at named operatives — and “signature strikes” — which are triggered by evidence of allegedly threatening activity by unidentified persons. Not surprisingly, the latter have been notorious for the “collateral damage” — innocent civilians — who have been casualties.
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, vanden Heuvel writes a weekly column for The Post.
Most Americans support the drones — after all they’re going after terrorists. But the administration is claiming the right to charge, try and execute an American citizen without a hearing or a trial and conviction. The Constitution, Attorney General Holder argues, “guarantees due process, not judicial process.” But once more, this tramples the entire framework of the Bill of Rights, which was devised to limit the power of the state to lock up political dissenters without an independent tribunal.
It is vital that Congress reassert its constitutional authority. In the 1952 Steel Seizure case, Justice Felix Frankfurter argued that “a systematic, unbroken, executive practice, long pursued to the knowledge of Congress and never before questioned . . . may be treated as a gloss on the executive power” vested in the president by the Constitution. The practice doesn’t just become legal, it becomes part of the Constitution, and Congress cannot thereafter challenge the authority that has been ceded.
Over twenty legislators led by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) have written formally to the president asking that he explain openly “the process by which signature strikes are authorized and executed; the mechanisms used to “ensure such killings are legal;” and the mechanisms to track civilian casualties. The Congress should also insist that the Justice Department memo detailing the legal arguments relied on by the president be made public. And then Congress needs to hold a grand inquest on presidential war powers and the rights of both the Congress and American citizens.