President Obama is wielding several security powers that have been historically controversial among Democrats, from indefinitely detaining Guantánamo prisoners to shutting down torture lawsuits as “state secrets” that cannot be addressed in court. There has not been a major Democratic backlash, but all the recent attention on Obama’s “kill list”—a set of targets that has included American citizens as young as 16 years old—seemed like an opening for a new chapter in challenging the administration’s security policies.
For starters, the kill list is just different. Many divisive security measures linked to the Bush administration have been inherently convoluted—Obama’s team had to clean up a mess while developing new policies on the fly. For example, take the Bush-era detainees. Some are difficult to convict in civilian courts because the evidence against them was gathered through torture. Obama supporters understand that the administration’s options are more limited on this score, a predicament Daniel Klaidman stresses in his new chronicle of Obama’s terror policies, Kill or Capture.
The drone program, however, goes far beyond what Bush ever did. It was not required by the past. And it sets a stunning precedent for the future.
Essentially, the program kills people chosen through a secret government process, including Americans and individuals selected merely for being near other targets, with no due process or publicly asserted legal authority.
Yet so far, most elected Democrats, liberal interest groups and progressive commentators have almost entirely avoided the issue. (There are some notable exceptions: the ACLU, Glenn Greenwald, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Jeremy Scahill, Eliot Spitzer, the blog FireDogLake, Democracy Now! and editorials by the New York Times and The Nation.) In the Senate, foreign policy–minded Democrats have focused more on criticizing the leak of the program than its content. In the House, 26 members did write a letter questioning the program. (It was led by Congressmen Kucinich and Conyers, longtime proponents of executive power oversight, and joined by two outlier Republicans, Ron Paul and Walter Jones.) The protests in the House don't have much of an outside game to fortify their effort: Most liberal groups are taking a pass during this election year. To pick one example, MoveOn.org, which is still pushing to close Guantánamo Bay in the Obama era, has not touched the kill list. People who oppose detention without trial, of course, usually oppose execution without trial.
Meanwhile, a few grassroots activists are making some noise. On the official White House website, activists recently used the “We The People” petition portal to tweak the drone program.
“Considering that the government already has a ‘Do Not Call’ list and a ‘No Fly’ list, we hereby request that the White House create a ‘Do Not Kill’ list in which American citizens can sign up to avoid being put on the president’s ‘kill list,’” explains the petition, “and therefore avoid being executed without indictment, judge, jury, trial or due process of law.”
The effort has drawn about 5,000 supporters. But it needs 20,000 more by June 29, in order to qualify for an official response from the White House.
The petition may sound like little more than a wry sideshow, but in the past, this administration’s avenues for online interaction have propelled neglected human rights issues into the conversation. When Obama was first elected, over 75,000 people voted for a question on his transition website asking whether torture allegations would be investigated or prosecuted. The administration initially dodged, even though it was the most popular query, which sparked more interest in the topic. ABC’s George Stephanopoulis cited the popular question in an interview with Obama himself, thrusting a largely taboo issue into the national debate.
At the time, the grassroots interest in torture accountability seemed like it might reflect a new, digitally savvy human rights constituency. Now that Obama is the one testing the same human rights principles, however, the grassroots outrage is harder to find.
Michael Crowley, a reliably measured senior correspondent for Time, sums up the pushback to the kill list as a demonstration of “dismay from some usual suspects on the left, but little outrage overall.” The silence is striking, Crowley writes, because “not only is Barack Obama asserting extraordinary executive power in ways that would have made Bush-era Democrats howl,” but he is “overseeing a very strange transformation” of the presidency into an “executioner-in-chief.” It may be the strangest byproduct of Barack Obama’s high personal appeal—he can legitimize extraordinary new powers without a debate, let alone an outcry.
This article was updated to reflect the addition of the House of Representatives letter questioning the drone program. Mike Darner in Rep. Conyers' office provided the letter to The Nation.