On Tuesday, NBC released a confidential Department of Justice paper concluding that our government can authorize the use of drones to kill targeted terrorist leaders, including U.S. citizens abroad. This story bares the dividing line between honest liberals — such as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the American Civil Liberties Union and the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board, all of whom opposed some of the harsher anti-terrorism tactics employed under President George W. Bush's administration and under the current administration — and rank opportunists, such as President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who denounced what they described as civil liberties violations under Bush but ditched said scruples when they took power.
As a candidate, Obama opposed the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," which he called torture, and described Guantanamo Bay as a recruiting tool for al-Qaida. In 2009, his attorney general, Eric Holder, reopened criminal investigations of CIA interrogators who had been investigated previously but, for good reason, were not charged.
Yet in the white paper, Holder's Justice Department signed off on Obama's or "an informed high-level" official's ordering the death of Americans who pose an "imminent threat" abroad. The paper also loosened the definition of "imminent threat."
"What's the greater deprivation of liberties," asked University of California, Berkeley law professor John Yoo — who wrote some of the Bush Justice Department's legal opinions that authorized CIA use of enhanced interrogation techniques — waterboarding or incinerating?
I'd say the latter. I'd add that the CIA waterboarded three top al-Qaida detainees and then stopped the practice in 2003. The apoplectic left demanded investigations and prosecutions.
Those concerned about the Bush policies, ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi noted, "should be just as concerned, if not more, with (the paper's) claim of expansive killing authority far from any battlefield."
Under Obama, The New York Times reports, U.S. drone attacks have killed at least 24 people in Yemen in this year alone. Some were innocent. Yet there have been no congressional hearings.
After the 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed three Americans — al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son and radical cleric Samir Khan — Senate committees requested an explanation. In June, the Department of Justice responded with this unclassified document.
Where is the outcry to go after the Obama lawyers? First you have to know their names. But unlike Bush documents released by Team Obama, the white paper has no lawyers' names. No date, either. It seems the attorney general wanted to shield his attorneys from the brand of harsh litigation techniques he inflicted on others. (Late Wednesday, an unnamed senior official said the White House would send classified legal documents to congressional committees.)
Like the Bush memos, the Obama paper glosses over the possible negative consequences of drone warfare. Though I support their use against the worst offenders, I share the fears of critics who wonder whether the overuse of drones eventually would undermine U.S. national security.
And I agree with Wyden, who said, "Every American has the right to know when their government believes that it is allowed to kill them."
At a news conference Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the administration ordered drone strikes "because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats, to stop plots, prevent future attacks and, again, save American lives."
I believe that. It's too bad Carney failed to recognize that those are the very reasons desperate intelligence officials turned to unusual interrogation methods, authorized by Bush lawyers, to prevent the next al-Qaida attack.
And for those milder measures, Holder used the raw power of the federal investigation to punish intelligence officials and Bush lawyers. Because he was one of the good guys.