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.