Obama’s Death Panel

When the Tea Partiers protested President Obama’s healthcare plan, they claimed that, in order to shave medical costs, the healthcare bureaucracy would be setting up “death panels,” which would decide who gets medical treatment and who didn’t. Presumably this would be adjudicated on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis: the cost of care weighed against one’s benefit to society. The Obama cult exploded in incredulous disdain: “Nonsense!” they screeched. This is just another crazy idea coming out of the mouths of “extremists” afflicted with ODS – Obama Derangement Syndrome. So move along, there’s nothing to see here…. 

Well, as it turns out, the Obama administration has indeed set up a Death Panel, albeit not in the realm of healthcare. Reuters reports

“American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials.

“There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House’s National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate. 

“The panel was behind the decision to add Awlaki, a U.S.-born militant preacher with alleged al Qaeda connections, to the target list. He was killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen late last month.” 

Who are the members of this panel? How do they reach their decisions? What legal advice are they given? The answers to these and other questions about this macabre bureaucratization of death must remain a mystery, because it’s all a secret: you and I are paying for it, in more ways than one, and it’s being done in our name – but we have no right to know the details.  

Conservatives have already noted the hypocrisy of the Obama administration publishing legal memos that Bush officials used to justify torture – but, somehow, it’s okay to keep the legal rationale for killing an American citizen secret. Not that they would disagree with the “legal” justification for murdering an American citizen without benefit of due process, or such niceties as a trial – they just want to point out the administration’s inconsistency. 

Okay, fair enough, but what I want to know is this: what is the name of this panel? Every government agency has a moniker, an acronymic identity, along with a symbol – like a coat of arms – that, taken together, makes up its bureaucratic persona: FBIATFCIA – they all conjure particular representations of authority that imbue the agency with a certain character, a particular penumbra of power. So what do they call their death panel: the Department of Death? The Office of Assassinations? And what about an appropriate symbol? Now there‘s a rich lode of blackest humor waiting to be mined! My suggestion: an American eagle clutching a shredded Constitution in one claw and a drone missile in the other.  

According to Reuters, the administration came up with two legal “theories” to justify the killing of al-Awlaki: 

“First, that the actions were permitted by Congress when it authorized the use of military forces against militants in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001; and they are permitted under international law if a country is defending itself.” 

Did Congress suspend the Constitution when they gave President Bush authority to invade Afghanistan and conduct his endless “war on terrorism”? I don’t remember that being part of it, but let’s take a look at the actual text of the resolution, which reads: 

That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

Did al-Awlaki plan, authorize, or commit the terrorist acts that occurred on September 11? Well, no, but al-Qaeda did – and since the departed Muslim cleric is said to be “linked” to that nearly defunct organization, one could make a tenuous argument that the resolution covers this instance. Yet one runs up against the question of whether the killing of an American citizen without benefit of due process really is “necessary and appropriate.” The Obama administration could argue it was necessary – but appropriate? I don’t think so, at least not without issuing a formal indictment, which is one legal nicety they didn’t bother with. In any case, Congress cannot grant the President the “right’ to kill Americans in such a manner because the Constitution forbids it.  

As for the international law angle: if this is what allows the US to murder its own citizens — just on the say so of the Office of Assassinations — then what business has this administration in condemning Bashar al-Assad when he cuts down his own people in the streets of Syria’s cities? After all, the Syrians claim they are only “defending” their country against foreign interference, including against acts of “terrorism.” How is this different from blasting al-Awlaki to smithereens in the desert of Yemen?  

The Obamaites know they’re in the wrong, but, being self-declared “pragmatists,” i.e. utterly shameless opportunists, they put alleged necessity over principle in this and every instance. But they make sure to cover their butts, and that of their Dear Leader, as Reuters points out: 

“Several officials said that when Awlaki became the first American put on the target list, Obama was not required personally to approve the targeting of a person. But one official said Obama would be notified of the principals’ decision. If he objected, the decision would be nullified, the official said. A former official said one of the reasons for making senior officials principally responsible for nominating Americans for the target list was to ‘protect’ the president.”

Protect Obama – from what? Why, from legal prosecution, to begin with, on the off chance our Constitution is restored and the criminals presently in charge are held accountable for their actions. These people live in constant fear that someone will discover what they’re up to, and haul them before a judge – a judge who remembers that the Constitution, and not the “executive orders” of a presidential despot, or the vague resolutions of an intimidated Congress — is the supreme law of the land.  

As we “celebrate” the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, and contemplate the costs and the nonexistent benefits, let’s look at the tremendous damage this policy of perpetual war has done to our system of limited, constitutional government. Like a corrosive acid that has been spilled on the apparatus of State, the poison of war has eaten away at the institutional safeguards and checks-and-balances that have – up until now — ensured our survival as a free people. Ten more years of this and we’ll have destroyed whatever faint traces of our old republic remain.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].