The President and His Apostles
by Tom Engelhardt
Be assured of one thing: whichever candidate you choose at the polls in November, you aren’t just electing a president of the United States; you are also electing an assassin-in-chief. The last two presidents may not have been emperors or kings, but they — and the vast national-security structure that continues to be built-up and institutionalized around the presidential self — are certainly one of the nightmares the founding fathers of this country warned us against. They are one of the reasons those founders put significant war powers in the hands of Congress, which they knew would be a slow, recalcitrant, deliberative body.
Thanks to a long New York Times piece by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” we now know that the president has spent startling amounts of time overseeing the “nomination” of terrorist suspects for assassination via the remotely piloted drone program he inherited from President George W. Bush and which he has expanded exponentially. Moreover, that article was based largely on interviews with “three dozen of his current and former advisers.” In other words, it was essentially an administration-inspired piece — columnist Robert Scheer calls it “planted” — on a “secret” program the president and those closest to him are quite proud of and want to brag about in an election year.
The language of the piece about our warrior president was generally sympathetic, even in places soaring. It focused on the moral dilemmas of a man who — we now know — has personally approved and overseen the growth of a remarkably robust assassination program in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan based on a “kill list.” Moreover, he’s regularly done so target by target, name by name. (The Times did not mention a recent U.S. drone strike in the Philippines that killed 15.) According to Becker and Shane, President Obama has also been involved in the use of a fraudulent method of counting drone kills, one that unrealistically deemphasizes civilian deaths.
Historically speaking, this is all passing strange. The Times calls Obama’s role in the drone killing machine “without precedent in presidential history.” And that’s accurate.
It’s not, however, that American presidents have never had anything to do with or been in any way involved in assassination programs. The state as assassin is hardly unknown in our history. How could President John F. Kennedy, for example, not know about CIA-inspired or -backed assassination plots against Cuba’s Fidel Castro, the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, and South Vietnamese autocrat (and ostensible ally) Ngo Dinh Diem? (Lumumba and Diem were successfully murdered.) Similarly, during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, the CIA carried out a massive assassination campaign in Vietnam, Operation Phoenix. It proved to be a staggeringly profligate program for killing tens of thousands of Vietnamese, both actual enemies and those simply swept up in the process.
In previous eras, however, presidents either stayed above the assassination fray or practiced a kind of plausible deniability about the acts. We are surely at a new stage in the history of the imperial presidency when a president (or his election team) assembles his aides, advisors, and associates to foster a story that’s meant to broadcast the group’s collective pride in the new position of assassin-in-chief.
Religious Cult or Mafia Hit Squad?
Here’s a believe-it-or-not footnote to our American age. Who now remembers that, in the early years of his presidency, George W. Bush kept what the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward called "his own personal scorecard for the war" on terror? It took the form of photographs with brief biographies and personality sketches of those judged to be the world's most dangerous terrorists, each ready to be crossed out by Bush once captured or killed. That scorecard was, Woodward added, always available in a desk drawer in the Oval Office.
Such private presidential recordkeeping now seems penny-ante indeed. The distance we’ve traveled in a decade can be measured by the Times' description of the equivalent of that “personal scorecard” today (and no desk drawer could hold it):
“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. This secret 'nominations' process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases, and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia. The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by [counterterrorism ‘tsar’ John O.] Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name.”
In other words, thanks to such meetings — on what insiders have labeled “terror Tuesday” — assassination has been thoroughly institutionalized, normalized, and bureaucratized around the figure of the president. Without the help of or any oversight from the American people or their elected representatives, he alone is now responsible for regular killings thousands of miles away, including those of civilians and even children. He is, in other words, if not a king, at least the king of American assassinations. On that score, his power is total and completely unchecked. He can prescribe death for anyone “nominated,” choosing any of the “baseball cards” (PowerPoint bios) on that kill list and then order the drones to take them (or others in the neighborhood) out.
He and he alone can decide that assassinating known individuals isn’t enough and that the CIA’s drones can instead strike at suspicious “patterns of behavior” on the ground in Yemen or Pakistan. He can stop any attack, any killing, but there is no one, nor any mechanism that can stop him. An American global killing machine (quite literally so, given that growing force of drones) is now at the beck and call of a single, unaccountable individual. This is the nightmare the founding fathers tried to protect us from.
In the process, as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, the president has shredded the Fifth Amendment, guaranteeing Americans that they will not “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel produced a secret memo claiming that, while the Fifth Amendment’s due process guarantee does apply to the drone assassination of an American citizen in a land with which we are not at war, “it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch.” (That, writes Greenwald, is “the most extremist government interpretation of the Bill of Rights I’ve heard in my lifetime.”) In other words, the former Constitutional law professor has been freed from the law of the land in cases in which he “nominates,” as he has, U.S. citizens for robotic death.
There is, however, another aspect to the institutionalizing of those “kill lists” and assassination as presidential prerogatives that has gone unmentioned. If the Times article — which largely reflects how the Obama administration cares to see itself and its actions — is to be believed, the drone program is also in the process of being sanctified and sacralized.
You get a sense of this from the language of the piece itself. (“A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan…”) The president is presented as a particularly moral man, who devotes himself to the "just war" writings of religious figures like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, and takes every death as his own moral burden. His leading counterterrorism advisor Brennan, a man who, while still in the CIA, was knee-deep in torture controversy, is presented, quite literally, as a priest of death, not once but twice in the piece. He is described by the Times reporters as “a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama.” They then quote the State Department’s top lawyer, Harold H. Koh, saying, “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”
In the Times telling, the organization of robotic killing had become the administration’s idée fixe, a kind of cult of death within the Oval Office, with those involved in it being so many religious devotees. We may be, that is, at the edge of a new state-directed, national-security-based religion of killing grounded in the fact that we are in a “dangerous” world and the “safety” of Americans is our preeminent value. In other words, the president, his apostles, and his campaign acolytes are all, it seems, praying at the Church of St. Drone.
Of course, thought about another way, that “terror Tuesday” scene might not be from a monastery or a church synod, but from a Mafia council directly out of a Mario Puzo novel, with the president as the Godfather, designating “hits” in a rough-and-tumble world.
How far we’ve come in just two presidencies! Assassination as a way of life has been institutionalized in the Oval Office, thoroughly normalized, and is now being offered to the rest of us as a reasonable solution to American global problems and an issue on which to run a presidential campaign.
Downhill All the Way on Blowback Planet
After 5,719 inside-the-Beltway (largely inside-the-Oval-Office) words, the Times piece finally gets to this single outside-the-Beltway sentence: “Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.”
Arguably, indeed! For the few who made it that far, it was a brief reminder of just how narrow, how confining the experience of worshiping at St. Drone actually is. All those endless meetings, all those presidential hours that might otherwise have been spent raising yet more money for campaign 2012, and the two countries that have taken the brunt of the drone raids are more hostile, more dangerous, and in worse shape than in 2009. (And one of them, keep in mind, is a nuclear power.) News articles since have only emphasized how powerfully those drones have radicalized local populations — however many “bad guys” (and children) they may also have wiped off the face of the Earth.
And though the Times doesn’t mention this, it’s not just bad news for Yemen or Pakistan. American democracy, already on the ropes, is worse off, too.
What should astound Americans — but seldom seems to be noticed — is just how into the shadows, how thoroughly military-centric, and how unproductive has become Washington's thinking at the altar of St. Drone and its equivalents (including special operations forces, increasingly the president’s secret military within the military). Yes, the world is always a dangerous place, even if far less so now than when, in the Cold War era, two superpowers were a heartbeat away from nuclear war. But — though it’s increasingly heretical to say this — the perils facing Americans, including relatively modest dangers from terrorism, aren’t the worst things on our planet.
Electing an assassin-in-chief, no matter who you vote for, is worse. Pretending that the Church of St. Drone offers any kind of reasonable or even practical solutions on this planet of ours, is worse yet. And even worse, once such a process begins, it’s bound to be downhill all the way. As we learned last week, again in the Times, we not only have an assassin-in-chief in the Oval Office, but a cyberwarrior, perfectly willing to release a new form of weaponry, the most sophisticated computer “worm” ever developed, against another country with which we are not at war.
This represents a breathtaking kind of rashness, especially from the leader of a country that, perhaps more than any other, is dependent on computer systems, opening the U.S. to potentially debilitating kinds of future blowback. Once again, as with drones, the White House is setting the global rules of the road for every country (and group) able to get its hands on such weaponry and it’s hit the highway at 140 miles per hour without a cop in sight.
James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the rest of them knew war, and yet were not acolytes of the eighteenth century equivalents of St. Drone, nor of presidents who might be left free to choose to turn the world into a killing zone. They knew at least as well as anyone in our national security state today that the world is always a dangerous place — and that that’s no excuse for investing war powers in a single individual. They didn’t think that a state of permanent war, a state of permanent killing, or a president free to plunge Americans into such states was a reasonable way for their new republic to go. To them, it was by far the more dangerous way to exist in our world.
The founding fathers would surely have chosen republican democracy over safety. They would never have believed that a man surrounded by advisors and lawyers, left to his own devices, could protect them from what truly mattered. They tried to guard against it. Now, we have a government and a presidency dedicated to it, no matter who is elected in November.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Engelhardt discusses drone warfare and the Obama administration, click here or download it to your iPod here.
Copyright 2012 Tom Engelhardt