The President as Executioner [Updated]

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Update: See below for further Obama administration response.

On Tuesday the New York Times ran an epic story detailing Barack Obama’s ferocious counter-terrorism policies, and the intimate degree to which the President himself oversees a “kill list” that determines which suspected terrorists will be granted premature martyrdom courtesy of an American drone-launched Hellfire missile. The opening of the story featured a bracing anecdote in which Obama surveys a list of al Qaeda suspects in Yemen that includes a seventeen-year-old girl. “How old are these people?” Obama asks. “If they are starting to use children, we are moving into a whole different phase.”

One frustration of that otherwise excellent story is its failure to resolve the questions raised in that passage. It remains unclear whether, as Obama wonders, al Qaeda might be trying to employ children in its plots. More significant, perhaps, we are never told whether Obama might have ordered that seventeen-year-old girl’s death. Asked for comment, the White House’s chief national security spokesman, Tommy Vietor, said he’s “not able to comment on specific [counter terrorism] operations.”

The story provoked dismay from some usual suspects on the left, but little outrage overall. That’s worth contemplating. Not only is Barack Obama asserting extraordinary executive power in ways that would have made Bush-era Democrats howl, fueling a dozen interminable Keith Olbermann “special comments,” but he is also overseeing a very strange transformation of his office. While Presidents have always made grand life-and-death decisions about war and peace—the Commander in Chief role—the job has recently evolved. Now we have something like an Executioner in Chief.

Though the title sounds nastier, the morality may actually be cleaner. Launching a major military operation (like, say, the Iraq War) invariably means killing an unpredictable number of innocents in unforeseeable ways. Drone strikes concentrate and limit the damage—though not perfectly—and allow a more specific cost-benefit calculus. A successful drone war can, theoretically, avoid a messier and bloodier conventional war.

Still, there’s something troubling about the almost-supernatural power an American President now enjoys to dispatch a person–perhaps even a teenage girl–from this world based on “mug shots and brief biographies resembl[ing] a high school yearbook layout,” as the Times put it. Especially when the legal and even strategic justification for the exercise of that power is quite debatable. All all the more so when it’s a debate the country doesn’t seem interested in having.

Update: An Obama administration official tells me that the Times story leaves readers with a false impression about the president’s role in the targeting process. Although the Times reported that Obama has “insisted on approving every new name on an expanding ‘kill list,'” this official says that is not the case. The names of potential targets are usually discussed within other departments and agencies, the official says, and then resolved in an inter-agency process. Specific targets are brought to the president only in special cases, for instance when the risk of “collateral damage” to innocents is high. This official specifically denies that Obama routinely reviews targets at a weekly “Terror Tuesday” meeting held to discuss counter terrorism policy. Instead, the official says, Obama “sets broad parameters” and offers “strategic guidance” for counter terrorism policy. “This impression that at these Tuesday meetings the president sits with a pencil and pad,” checking off names on a list, “that’s not accurate. He outlines the parameters of our counter terrorism policy, he does not make the call on every action.” (The official also said that Obama does not attend larger meetings described by the Times, involving up to 100 national security officials who “pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and recommend to the president who should be the next to die,” as the Times put it. The Tuesday meetings are attended by Obama and his “core national security team,” the official says.)

The Times story was the work of two excellent reporters who interviewed dozens of sources, so I’m not rendering judgment, just passing along this response. I would note something interesting about it, however: the Times story left some people marveling that the White House had seemingly been so eager to portray Obama as intimately involved in the ordering of killings. There are obvious political benefits to looking tough on terrorists, but the paper’s account did make Obama seem surprisingly close to–and not especially remorseful about–the process. At a minimum, this bit of pushback suggests some discomfort within the administration about that perception.