Mark Hemingway: The assassination double standard

Mark Hemingway

In March of last year, New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh dropped a bombshell that a "covert executive assassination ring" had been run out of Vice President Cheney's office.

Of course, Hersh has long had a "loose relationship with literal truth," according to a 2005 article by Chris Suellentrop in New York Magazine. Columbia Journalism Review once offered this pointed critique of one of his books: "Hersh's attributions generally fall short of normal journalistic yardsticks. More important, many of his conclusions are weakly substantiated by his research and highly questionable."

Despite Hersh's unreliability, his suggestion Cheney was assassinating people at will was dutifully parroted by the activist Left and receptive members of the media.

This week President Obama publicly ordered the assassination of a U.S. citizen, Muslim Cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Unlike Hersh's scurrilous charge, this presidential directive is a matter of record -- not a wild rumor.

Make no mistake: al-Awlaki is a bad guy. He's been definitively linked to the 9/11 hijackers, and more recently the recent Fort Hood massacre, not to mention the failed underwear bombing plot this past Christmas.

But he's also a U.S. citizen, and thus entitled to basic constitutional protections. So where are the denunciations of Obama's extraordinary decision from those who spent eight years decrying Bush and Cheney's wartime expansion of executive power?

Bear in mind that Obama's administration has repeatedly tried to extend constitutional protections to noncitizens accused of terrorism. Underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was arrested and mirandized within an hour of his plane landing, despite the fact he's Nigerian.

Similarly, the Obama administration has repeatedly pushed to give a civilian criminal trial to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed even though he is Kuwaiti national.

We need not be Pollyannas about the likes of al-Awlaki. His killing might very well save American lives. But ever since President Ford issued an executive order banning assassinations, presidents have responded to the need to "take out" dangerous individuals by legal justifications other than an executive license to kill.

For instance, we attack terrorist infrastructure. In some cases that means locking a missile on to the signal of a satellite phone pressed up to the face of the dangerous terrorist who's currently using it. We destroy the infrastructure of the phone -- the terrorist just happens to be collateral damage.

Is this a transparent legal justification for killing someone? No, but if the president's actions are justifiable in the name of national security, no one is likely to question his motivations.

If the killing turns out to be questionable, the flimsy pretext is unlikely to offer the president cover. There is a certain logic to the approach.

But if it becomes accepted the president can publicly assert his power to kill U.S. citizens, we're setting a truly dangerous precedent. It's not that I expect Obama to cavalierly kill people -- but I worry about what future presidents might do.

Perhaps deep down, this administration is more comfortable with the idea of assassinating al-Awlaki precisely because he is a U.S. citizen. Obama's rationale to turn away from the more controversial aspects of Bush's war on terror -- such as Guantanamo and waterboarding -- was in large part to improve our perception abroad.

So who will criticize Obama's actions domestically? Bush supporters would be called hypocrites, and, as the current silence demonstrates, the Left (with a few principled exceptions) remains in the president's back pocket.

As long as the president wants to grant constitutional protections to foreign terrorists at the same time he is comfortable assassinating citizens, someone needs to ask the question:

Who exactly is being protected here?

Mark Hemingway is a editorial page staff writer for the Washington Examiner. He can be reached at

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earllier version of this column misstated the nationality of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as Kenyan. He was raised in Kenya and Nigeria, but is a Nigerian citizen.

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