Nixonesque?

The HuffPost story begins as follows:

The Obama administration woke up on Tuesday to another morning of scorching criticism about the Justice Department’s decision to secretly obtain months of Associated Press phone records.

The DOJ tracked the incoming and outgoing calls on more than 20 AP phone lines, as well as the home, office and cell phone lines for six individual journalists involved in writing a national security-related story about Yemen that the Obama administration did not want them to write.

While many of us who supported this president are dismayed by this story and its ramifications — given its open attack on the first amendment — there are those who will insist that the president is in no way connected with this sort of suppression. How could he be? He’s a liberal democrat, after all, and Democrats are champions of a free press. But the story goes on to point out that

[Buzzfeed editor Ben] Smith wrote that the nuclear nature of the probe could, in part, be traced back to Obama, who has made it a policy to aggressively go after leaks in a fashion not seen in any of his predecessors. Though the White House said it had nothing to do with the probe and referred reporters to the Justice Department, Smith wrote that it was not hard to see Obama’s hand in some way: Elements of this approach, Obama’s friends and foes agree, come from the top. Obama is personally obsessed with leaks, to the extent that his second chief of staff, Bill Daley, took as one of his central mandates a major and ill-fated plumbing expedition. Attorney General Eric Holder, who pressed the leak policy, is a trusted Obama insider.

This obsession with leaks and attempts to suppress the news is disquieting indeed. I must admit I found Obama’s first term as president unsettling, given his urge to make everyone happy and reach compromises that violated fundamental principles he embraced during his campaign. But I figured that when he gets a second term and doesn’t have to run again he will come out strong on the principles one identifies with liberal thinkers and politicians who aren’t simply holding a finger up to see which way the wind is blowing. But there he is with his finger up — and it appears to be his middle one and it is pointed at us!  The man doesn’t seem to know what a principle is and he is acting very much like a paranoid Richard Nixon or George W. Bush, saying one thing while he does another. Shades of Watergate and the invasion of Iraq clouded in lies in the name of “freedom.”

It was terribly disappointing, for example, to see that even though 91% of the people in this country wanted some sort of background checks on gun sales the man couldn’t wheedle the Senate into a vote to support gun control. Is he really that clueless, not to mention inept? He seems to be sleeping with corporations like Monsanto who are determined to ignore ethics completely in the name of higher profits. Moreover, he promised to close Guantanamo where prisoners at this writing are still on a hunger strike to draw attention to their inhumane plight. And while the drone attacks started under Bush, they have escalated under Obama to an alarming extent — and he refuses to “come clean” and appear before committees to explain what he is up to. His tendency toward secrecy and his inclination to resort of prevarication when confronted smacks of the very thing we all hoped we were getting way from with this president who promised to be open and honest. He does, indeed, appear to be a Republican in Democratic clothing, fearful of “the enemy” and devoted to increasing corporate profits. It’s one thing to be a closet Republican with his hand in corporate pockets (there are a number of them in Congress), but it is quite another to pretend that he is anything but. It’s the duplicity coupled with the growing lack of trust that causes the greatest concern. Just who is this man?

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Targeting Terrorists

A very unsettling news item recently surfaced about the drones this country has been routinely employing in such places as Pakistan to target terrorist leaders. The very fact that this country would resort to terror to fight terror is disturbing, especially when innocent civilians are killed in the drone strikes. But the rationale for these strikes is even more bothersome, since it puts me in mind of a blog I wrote some time ago about how nation-states set ethics aside when they engage in horrible acts they regard as in “the national interest.” This country was supposed to be above such acts. In this case we are told in a recent HuffPost news item the determination of when and where to use these drones “in the national interest” has become a political issue:

The report, by Michael Isikoff of NBC News, reveals that the Obama administration believes that high-level administration officials — not just the president — may order the killing of “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or an associated force even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” states the Justice Department white paper quoted by Isikoff.

The paper states that the U.S. would be able to kill a U.S. citizen overseas when “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” determines the target is an imminent threat, when capture would be infeasible and when the operation is “conducted consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

One concern that is receiving a good deal of attention is the possibility of illicit extension of executive power — a constitutional issue that will bear careful scrutiny by constitutional lawyers and political pundits. I am more interested in the moral issue, as we all should be. After all, ours is a democracy that was a signatory to the Geneva Conventions placing “humane” restraints on modern warfare. Those restraints have been found wanting recently by our incarceration of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo. But this policy takes us even further away from the ideals.

The issue here is not so much that this policy allows for the killing of American citizens — which has already been accomplished — but that it condones the killing of suspected terrorists in crowded areas where, regardless of nationality, innocent people will also die. The notion that we — that is to say, this country — routinely order drones into crowded urban areas with the intention to “take out” an alleged leader of al-Qaeda “even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.” on the grounds that this is “consistent with applicable law of war principles” is morally reprehensible. What, precisely, are those principles? And how do we determine which ones are “applicable”?

If the drones were used against presumed terrorists in the streets of Los Angles or New York by our enemies we would assuredly not recognize this as “lawful killing.” What we would not allow to have done to our own citizens in this country — or anywhere else — we should not regard as morally acceptable when done by our own leaders to suspected terrorists, no matter how “high” the level of the “official of the United States” happens to be who makes this dreadful decision.

As a student of rationalization — the attempt to find reasons for doing what we are going to do anyway — I am struck by the claim that “a lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination.” To begin with, how are those killings in any way “lawful”? What laws apply in this case? — certainly not moral laws. And certainly not moral principles as we can see from the fact that a neutral observer reading about such a “lawful killing” would never agree that it is not an assassination. Imagine what people in other countries must think of this nation when our leaders reason this way. Would we ourselves agree that it is not an assassination if “a lawful killing” targeted, say, the Secretary of Defense, or one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and killed several innocent bystanders in the process? We would be appalled, and we should be.