The White Paper

The Justice Department White Paper on the targeted killing of US citizens is out, and worth a read. There are no surprises here, for anyone who has followed this sordid affair. Much of the same policy was articulated by AG Holder last year in his speech at Northwestern Law. Holder basically assured his audience that these were not assassinations because assassinations are illegal and we should trust that the deliberations internal to the executive provided more than enough due process (you can read excerpts in this post).

For those who go to the White Paper, the discussion of what constitutes an “imminent” threat (p. 7) seems like something issued by the Ministry of Peace:

“the condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

Note, the OED provides the following definition:

“Of an event, etc. (almost always of evil or danger): Impending threateningly, hanging over one’s head; ready to befall or overtake one; close at hand in its incidence; coming on shortly.”

Apparently, the definition can now be presented in a more concise fashion:

“Of an event, etc. (almost always of evil or danger): Impending threateningly, hanging over one’s head; ready to befall or overtake one; close at hand in its incidence; coming on shortly.”

In the present case, if someone has been involved in the past “in activities posing an imminent threat …and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities,” this fact would “support the conclusion that the member poses an imminent threat.” One wonders what happens if we insert the administration’s definition of imminent threat into this statement of policy.

I could go on, but you can read the paper for yourself. Jacob Sullum has written a decent review of the White Paper at Reason that is also worth a quick read. The final paragraph is a gem:

“The problem is that to accept this position [the argument in the White Paper], you have to put complete trust in the competence, wisdom, and ethics of the president, his underlings, and their successors. You have to believe they are properly defining and inerrantly identifying people who pose an imminent (or quasi-imminent) threat to national security and eliminating that threat through the only feasible means, which involves blowing people up from a distance. If mere mortals deserved that kind of faith, we would not need a Fifth Amendment, or the rest of the Constitution.”

One might also quote James Madison (Federalist 51) who made what would now appear to be an inconvenient point:

” If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

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