In the last week we learned that the Obama administration has given itself the power to both wage pre-emptive cyberwar and order the assassination of U.S. citizens—as long as they’re not in America. Add this to the long-standing ability of presidents to wage pre-emptive physical wars and you have to wonder why we even have a Congress.
On Sunday The New York Times reported:
“A secret legal review on the use of America’s growing arsenal of cyberweapons has concluded that President Obama has the broad power to order a pre-emptive strike if the United States detects credible evidence of a major digital attack looming from abroad."
Apparently The Times didn’t want the story to get much attention because it ran on Super Bowl Sunday and got buried beneath Beyonce and two guys named Harbaugh.
As it turns out the paper needn’t have worried because even without the Blackout Bowl everyone would have forgotten about the story Tuesday when NBC reported:
"A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be "senior operational leaders" of al-Qaida or "an associated force"—even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S."
In the past, the American government never admitted to these two things: Starting wars and killing its own citizens.
Up until the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States liked to pretend that it did not engage in pre-emptive attacks. The idea of striking first was sacrilegious to Americans who liked to believe they lived in a nation that did not start wars. This belief was maintained despite nearly 170 years of evidence to the contrary. It started with James Polk invading Mexico in 1846, followed by the Spanish-American War, the Philippines War and continuing right through Vietnam. And those are just the major wars—never mind all those little "police actions." Now that’s don’t ask, don’t tell.
But then came The George W. Bush Desert Classic, and America said to hell with that.
Up until the Obama presidency it was also forbidden for Americans to admit that the United States assassinated anyone—let alone its own citizens. Then came drone attacks, legal justifications and now Americans trumpet it from the rooftops.
What both the drone assassinations and cyberwar powers have in common is a total lack of outside review. The administration claims U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was given "due process" before being killed in a drone strike. There is no definition of due process that fits the policies described in the just-released legal rationalization. No one—not the courts, not Congress—got to review the decision, even ex post facto. We should never forget that strike killed two American citizens. The other was Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old son. He was guilty of riding in a car with his father.
The cyberattack capabilities are at a similar level of lethality, The Times tells us:
"One senior American official said that officials quickly determined that the cyberweapons were so powerful that—like nuclear weapons—they should be unleashed only on the direct orders of the commander in chief."
Again, without any advice or consent from what used to be known as our elected representatives. As James Madison wrote:
"In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture to heterogeneous powers, the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man; not such as nature may offer as the prodigy of many centuries, but such as may be expected in the ordinary successions of magistracy."
I found that quote in an incredible post by Charlie Pierce on Esquire’s politics blog. It ends by describing the other cost of assassinations and secret cyberwars:
"Government secrecy and deception blurs the line between genuine fears over the decline of civil liberties, and the wild-assed fantasies of the black-helicopter crowd. If you want to see the true destructive power of Droneworld in this country, look deeply into the Id of the democratic political imagination. There are angry, feral creatures in there, stalking the ruins, howling for blood."