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Obama Administration: US Forces Can Assassinate Americans Believed to Be Involved in Terrorist Activity

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The Obama administration has acknowledged it’s continuing a Bush-era policy authorizing the killing of US citizens abroad. The confirmation came from Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in congressional testimony last week. Blair said, “Being a US citizen will not spare an American from getting assassinated by military or intelligence operatives overseas if the individual is working with terrorists and planning to attack fellow Americans.” We speak to Rep. Dennis Kucinich and blogger and attorney Glenn Greenwald. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration has acknowledged it’s continuing a Bush-era policy authorizing the killing of US citizens abroad. The confirmation came from Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in congressional testimony last week.

Blair told the House Intelligence Committee US forces can assassinate Americans believed to be involved in terrorist activity against the United States. Blair said, quote, “Being a US citizen will not spare an American from getting assassinated by military or intelligence operatives overseas if the individual is working with terrorists and planning to attack fellow Americans.” He added, “We don’t target people for free speech; we target them for taking action that threatens Americans.”

Blair’s comments came one week after the Washington Post reported at least three US citizens are on “hit lists” maintained by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command. The most well-known target is the US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is accused of having ties to the failed Christmas Day airline bombing and the shooting at Fort Hood.

My first two guests have been among the most vocal critics of the continued assassination policy. Democratic Congress member Dennis Kucinich joins us from Washington, DC. Last week he wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting an explanation of the Obama administration’s legal basis for the extrajudicial killing of US citizens. And we’re joined on the telephone by Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for Salon.com. He wrote a widely circulated piece for Salon last week called “Presidential Assassinations of US Citizens.”

Let’s begin with Congress member Dennis Kucinich. Explain what you wrote to Attorney General Holder.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I think it’s incumbent upon the Attorney General to explain the basis in law for such a policy. Our Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, our Seventh Amendment, our Fourteenth Amendment all clearly provide legal protections for people who are accused or who would be sentenced after having been judged to be guilty. And what’s happened is that the Constitution is being vitiated here. The idea that people are — have — if their life is in jeopardy, legally have due process of law, is thrown out the window.

And, Amy, when you consider that there are people who are claiming there are many terrorist cells in the United States, it doesn’t take too much of a stretch to imagine that this policy could easily be transferred to citizens in this country. That doesn’t — that only compounds what I think is a slow and steady detachment from core constitutional principles. And once that happens, we have a country then that loses its memory and its soul, with respect to being disconnected from those core constitutional principles which are the basis of freedom in our society.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, you’ve been writing about this extensively. Can you talk about your major objections and where you think this policy is going?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, first of all, look at the controversies that Democrats and progressives were so vocal about during the Bush years. They objected vehemently over the Bush administration’s wiretapping of American citizens without any court warrants or judicial oversight. They objected when the Bush administration put, not American citizens, but foreign nationals into cages at Guantánamo, merely on the say-so of the President that these people were terrorists.

Here, you’re talking about the worst elements of those policies, but even more extreme. You’re talking about American citizens not being merely wiretapped by the President with no oversight, but murdered, assassinated, killed, based solely on the unchecked say-so of the President.

And I think what really has to be emphasized is, look at how many times over the past decade that the administration — both first the Bush administration, then the Obama administration — has accused people of being terrorists, the worst of the worst, and it turned out that they were completely wrong. Hundreds of people who were at Guantánamo ended up being released because there was no evidence of wrongdoing print. Ever since the Supreme Court in 2008 granted habeas corpus rights to detainees, thirty-three out of thirty-nine Guantánamo detainees who brought their cases before a court were ordered released by federal judges on the grounds that there was no evidence to justify the accusations against them.

So there are few things more dangerous than allowing the executive branch to label people terrorists and treat them accordingly, and that danger is compounded severely when you’re talking about American citizens who have constitutional rights and talking about not merely eavesdropping on them or imprisoning them, but actually murdering them.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn, you quote a 1981 executive order signed by Ronald Reagan.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. Well, you know, assassinations have a very long and sordid history in the United States, and the reason is, is that the CIA has used assassinations as a major weapon in its arsenal, so much so that they’ve assassinated people who ended up being wrongly killed, who ended up causing great controversy because it’s extrajudicial killings. And even Ronald Reagan, who engaged in all sorts of extreme policies in Central America waging covert war, declared political assassinations, assassinations of political leaders, to be illegal. Now that applies only to political assassinations, not necessarily to assassinations of people accused of terrorism, but the principle is the same, that these kind of extrajudicial killings, which we condemn when virtually every other country does, was so extreme, so contrary to our values, that even Ronald Reagan issued an executive order banning it.

And now here’s President Obama doing it again, not with regard to foreign nationals or to foreign leaders who we accuse of all kinds of extremities, but United States citizens, in the case of al-Awlaki, born and raised and educated in the United States. And it’s as severe and extreme a policy as can be imagined.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Congress member Dennis Kucinich, what can you do about this in Congress?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, Congress has the authority, under a joint resolution, to challenge any presidential directive. It’s not widely known, Amy, but there are at least three states of national emergency that we’re operating under right now by presidential declaration: one relating to 9/11, another one relating to the war on terror, and a third one relating to Iran. You know, this idea of being governed by an edict, of being locked into this war on terror, poses all kinds of challenges to our Constitution. I take an oath to defend the Constitution. And when I see in the Fifth Amendment where it says that no one should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, I want to know what’s the constitutional basis for suspending this provision for anyone, even for a moment, because if this is — if this, in any sense, can be set aside, then we are on a slippery slope to anti-democracy.

And I think that the reason why this is important for the Attorney General to reflect upon is that the President and all federal officials take an oath to defend that Constitution. This is the Constitution. If they’re saying that the authorization for the use of military force passed after 9/11 is the basis for this action, we should know that they’re saying that. But a fair reading of that said it applied only to those who were involved in 9/11, not someone who joins an organization later on, no matter how misguided or wrongheaded that that may be, that is seen to be a threat to the US, that someone can just say, “Well, you know, you’re done. You’re dead.”

You know, what about the right to be able to be told of the charges against you? What about the right to a trial? What about the right to be able to have — be presented by your accusers? This is — this is a dangerous moment. And either — I see it as a constitutional crisis. And Congress has to start stepping up to review these actions without regard to whether it’s a Democrat or Republican administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have support among your colleagues, Congressman Kucinich?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: I just raised this issue in the last week, and it’s been snowing here, so I’ll be speaking to my colleagues about that when I see them. I’m here. I’m hopeful that this week there will still be some sessions of Congress, so we can begin the discussion.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you for making your way into the studio today. On another issue, I wanted to ask you about the Supreme Court decision. You ran for president. You were part of the Democratic primary. In fact, wasn’t it true that ABC News stopped following you when they said you hadn’t raised enough money? I wanted to ask you about the Supreme Court decision opening the floodgates for corporate money in politics.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: We’re working on a constitutional amendment right now, Amy, that would address this — the core issues in not only the Citizens United case, but the Buckley v. Valeo case. Our government right now is like an auction, where policy is — goes to the highest bidder. And this pay-to-play environment is destructive of any hope that people could have to have their practical aspirations addressed by the government. You know, the idea that Wall Street is now moving its smart money over to the Republicans is quite instructive. The idea that health insurance interests could raise money during the very — for members of Congress, during the very time that legislation is before the Congress that would change the way that they do business, these are things that reflect on the danger to our democracy.

And I think this Citizens United case, which gave the corporations the ability to interfere in elections in a major way, through their money, puts us at risk of openly having a corporate-dominated government. Now it’s kind of a secret, I suppose, in some places. But it’s now — you know, once Citizens United was decided by the Supreme Court in the way it was, now it’s basically open season on anyone who challenges these corporate interests and a free pass for anyone who supports them. A real danger to our democratic tradition calls out for constitutional remedies, and there are many that are now being considered, and I’m certainly working on some.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Glenn Greenwald?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, you know, it was interesting because I was — I agree with Congressman Kucinich completely with regard to the constitutional arguments he was making about the presidential assassination program. If you look at the Fifth Amendment, it really does say no person shall be deprived of life without due process. It says that in clear terms. To me, the First Amendment is just as clear, and it says Congress shall make no law abridging free speech. And as Justice Hugo Black said, I read that to mean Congress shall make no law abridging free speech.

So, I certainly agree that corporate dominance of our Congress — you know, Senator Durbin recently said the banks own the place, an extraordinary statement for the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate to make. I think the corporate dominance of our political process is one of the two or three greatest threats we face. But I also think that whatever solutions we try and find for that need to be consistent with the clear constitutional prescriptions of the First Amendment, and allowing the government to ban or regulate corporations from speaking out on elections, to me, seems very problematic.

So I think there are ways around it. I think public financing of campaigns can equalize the playing field. I think some constitutional amendment might be viable, but I do think it’s a very difficult question constitutionally to allow the government to start saying who can speak about our elections and who can’t. So, I think the First Amendment needs to be just as honored as the Fifth Amendment when we talk about these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Congress member Kucinich?

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: Well, I would agree with Mr. Greenwald and also thank him for the three important articles he wrote in the wake of Dana Priest writing in the Washington Post about this assassination program.

With respect to corporate contributions, let’s take for example anyone who gets a contract from the government. Why should they be permitted to plow the money they get from taxpayers back into political contributions? Because since money is fungible, that is what would happen. There should be restrictions there. That would go a long way to stopping these interest groups from being able to compete for government contracts and then turn around and rewarding those who give them money. I mean, take, for example, the bailouts. You know, we have an — will have an unending bailout culture, if you can have Wall Street continuing to give money to politicians who will then vote for bailouts for them. When does it stop?

This is why the only remedy is constitutional. And certainly one of the factors that has to be in there is public financing. I mean, if you have public financing of campaigns, you have public ownership of the political process. You have private financing of campaigns, you have private ownership of the political process. So, again, we have to — we’re continuing in this experiment in government to decide what kind of government we want. Do we want government of the people? Do we want government of the corporations? Right now, with two Supreme Court rulings, we have moved towards the balance towards government of the corporations. This is something that Jefferson feared, something that Lincoln feared, something that Eisenhower warned about. And we should find out, in this time, in 2010, whether or not we truly believe that this Declaration of Independence and Constitution is a living testament or whether it’s just, you know, a document gathering dust in some place in antiquity.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, in this last minute, Congress member Kucinich, the death of your close friend, Congress member Murtha.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: You know, when you see someone like John Murtha, who had the capacity to listen carefully and to watch carefully what was happening in Iraq and to come forward as he did in 2006 to change and to challenge the war, that was an important moment. Congressman Neil Abercrombie and I spent many long discussions with John Murtha talking to him about the war and expressing to him, in 2004, 2005, our deep concerns about the direction that the war had gone, and John Murtha listened carefully. And that really was the measure of Mr. Murtha.

I have to tell you, on a personal note, I mean, despite the fact that he and I may have had some, you know, fundamental differences of opinion about the great mass of money that went — that goes into the Department of Defense, he was someone — because of his openness, he was someone who was really loved by members of Congress. And my — [no audio]

AMY GOODMAN: We just lost Congress member Kucinich. But we’re going to go to break, and when we come back, we’re going to play a brief conversation I had with Congress member Murtha in 2006. It was about the killings in Haditha. It was about the war in Iraq. Congress member Kucinich, joining us from Ohio, and Glenn Greenwald, joining us on the phone, constitutional law attorney and legal blogger at Salon.com.

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