As Law Professor Ryan Goodman wrote yesterday in the New York Times, “the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has acted with an overly broad definition of what it means to be engaged in combat.” That phrase – “engaged in combat” – does not only include people who are engaged in violence at the time you detain or kill them. It includes a huge array of people who we would not normally think of, using common language, as being “engaged in combat”.
Indeed, the whole point of the Paul filibuster was to ask whether the Obama administration believes that it has the power to target a US citizen for assassination on US soil the way it did to Anwar Awlaki in Yemen. The Awlaki assassination was justified on the ground that Awlaki was a “combatant”, that he was “engaged in combat”, even though he was killed not while making bombs or shooting at anyone but after he had left a cafe where he had breakfast. If the Obama administration believes that Awlaki was “engaged in combat” at the time he was killed – and it clearly does – then Holder’s letter is meaningless at best, and menacing at worst, because that standard is so broad as to vest the president with exactly the power his supporters now insist he disclaimed.
The phrase “engaged in combat” has come to mean little more than: anyone the President accuses, in secrecy and with no due process, of supporting a Terrorist group. Indeed, radically broad definitions of “enemy combatant” have been at the heart of every War on Terror policy, from Guantanamo to CIA black sites to torture. As Professor Goodman wrote:
“By declining to specify what it means to be ‘engaged in combat’ the letter does not foreclose the possible scenario – however hypothetical – of a military drone strike, against a United States citizen, on American soil. It also raises anew questions about the standards the administration has used in deciding to use drone strikes to kill Americans suspected of terrorist involvement overseas . . .
“The Obama administration’s continued refusal to do so should alarm any American concerned about the constitutional right of our citizens – no matter what evil they may or may not be engaged in – to due process under the law. For those Americans, Mr. Holder’s seemingly simple but maddeningly vague letter offers no reassurance.”
Indeed, as both Law Professor Kevin Jon Heller and Marcy Wheeler noted, Holder, by deleting the word “actively” from Paul’s question (can you kill someone not “actively engaged in combat”?), raised more questions than he answered. As Professor Heller wrote:
“‘Engaged in combat’ seems like a much broader standard than ‘senior operational leader’. which the recently disclosed White Paper described as a necessary condition of killing an American citizen overseas. Does that mean the President can kill an American citizen inside the US who is a lower-ranking member of al-Qaeda or an associated force? . . . .
“What does ‘engaged in combat’ mean? That is a particularly important question, given that Holder did not restrict killing an American inside the US to senior operational leaders and deleted ‘actively’ from Paul’s question. Does ‘engaging’ require participation in planning or executing a terrorist attack? Does any kind of direct participation in hostilities qualify? Do acts short of direct participation in hostilities – such as financing terrorism or propagandizing – qualify? Is mere membership, however loosely defined by the US, enough?”
Particularly since the Obama administration continues to conceal the legal memos defining its claimed powers – memos we would need to read to understand what it means by “engaged in combat” – the Holder letter should exacerbate concerns, not resolve them. As Digby, comparing Bush and Obama legal language on these issues,wrote yesterday about Holder’s letter: “It’s fair to say that these odd phrasings and very particular choices of words are not an accident and anyone with common sense can tell instantly that by being so precise, they are hiding something.”
At best, Holder’s letter begs the question: what do you mean when you accuse someone of being “engaged in combat”? And what are the exact limits of your power to target US citizens for execution without due process? That these questions even need to be asked underscores how urgently needed Paul’s filibuster was, and how much more serious pushback is still merited. But the primary obstacle to this effort has been, and remains, that the Democrats who spent all that time parading around as champions of these political values are now at the head of the line leading the war against them.
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