This weekend the New York Times published a story which sets out to explain “how a US citizen came to be in America’s cross hairs.” The long feature, prominently displayed on the front page in the A1 spot, is five pages of assertions made by “three dozen current and former legal and counterterrorism officials and outside experts,” most of whom the reporters allow to speak anonymously.
The story tells us that Anwar al-Aulaqi was a very bad man indeed, and “operationally” so. It tells us that the government accidentally killed Samir Khan, another US citizen. And it tells us that the US strike that killed a 16 year old citizen from Denver was an “error,” without providing a shred of evidence for the claim.
The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which are suing the government to challenge the legality of these killings, issued a statement about the story:
In anonymous assertions to The New York Times, current and former Obama administration officials seek to justify the killings of three U.S. citizens even as the administration fights hard to prevent any transparency or accountability for those killings in court. This is the latest in a series of one-sided, selective disclosures that prevent meaningful public debate and legal or even political accountability for the government’s killing program, including its use against citizens.
Government officials have made serious allegations against Anwar al-Aulaqi, but allegations are not evidence, and the whole point of the Constitution’s due process clause is that a court must distinguish between the two. If the government has evidence that Al-Aulaqi posed an imminent threat at the time it killed him, it should present that evidence to a court. Officials now also anonymously assert that Samir Khan’s killing was unintended and that the killing of 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi was a mistake, even though in court filings the Obama administration refuses to acknowledge any role in those killings. In court filings made just last week, the government in essence argued, wrongly, that it has the authority to kill these three Americans without ever having to justify its actions under the Constitution in any courtroom.
Glenn Greenwald raises similar concerns. "The NYT and Obama officials collaborate to prosecute Awlaki after he’s executed," his headline screams, but the "joint media-government attempt to justify the assassination of a US citizen ends up doing the opposite."
The Times piece is another example of a dangerous trend that has become almost institutionalized over the past five years: reporters allow the government to shape a narrative about supposedly "top secret" affairs, and speak through them like ventriloquists, while they hide behind the impenetrable wall of ‘state secrets’ when anyone tries to take them to court to try to see actual government documents or to challenge claimed executive powers.
Greenwald puts it this way:
[W]hy can Obama officials run to the NYT after the fact and make all sorts of claims about the mountains of evidence supposedly proving Awlaki's guilt, but not have done the same thing in a court of law prior to killing him? As the NYT notes, when the ACLU sued on behalf of Awlaki's father seeking to enjoin Obama from killing his son, the Obama DOJ invoked the "state secrets" privilege, insisting that the evidence against Awlaki was so secret that national security would be jeopardized if disclosed to the court: the very same alleged evidence that Obama officials are now spilling to the NYT. They also deliberately refused to indict him, which would have at least required showing some evidence to a court to justify the accusations against him and would have enabled him to turn himself in and defend himself if inclined to do so.
All of this highlights why it's so odious to prosecute and convict people in a newspaper after you execute them, rather than in a court of law before you end their life. As but one example, the statements about Awlaki from attempted underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab on which the NYT heavily relies to assert Awlaki's guilt would have been subjected to intense cross-examination to see if they were simply the results of Abdulmutallab giving the government what they wanted – namely, statements that incriminated someone they wanted to kill – in exchange for favors as part of his plea agreement. It's so basic, though the NYT seems not to have heard, that statements made by accused criminals in exchange for favors as part of a plea bargain are among the most unreliable.
The Obama administration may think that the NYT piece will help it win a PR battle in its endless war to defend the secretive kill programs from the sunlight of public transparency — and indeed, many people will likely believe what’s written there is "All the News That’s Fit to Print" on the subject.
But astute commentators have poked so many holes in the story these unnamed officials lay out for the NYT that the article may in fact hurt its mission in the long run.
Marcy Wheeler is one of those astute commentators. She’s already penned a number of blogs on what she calls the Times’ "irresponsibly credulous accounting" of the Aulaqi and Khan killings. In her first posts on the story, she explains how the legal justification for killing Aulaqi that the administration has puts forward, through its unofficial mouthpiece at the Times, is shoddy reasoning at best.
We're lucky to have people like Wheeler and Greenwald who will painstakingly pull apart different accounts of government actions, to try to unearth some truth for the public.
But the most important takeaway from the Times piece is that we don’t know and won’t know what the government actually thinks its lethal authorities allow until it releases the nearly dozen Office of Legal Counsel memos that lay them out.
Newspaper articles chock full of anonymous quotes and unsourced government claims do not satisfy this demand. Just like we did before the story was published, we need to see the legal memos to judge for ourselves whether or not the administration's lethal force is legal. Period.
Meanwhile, the person responsible for shrouding the legal justifications in secrecy and refusing to disclose the memos to the public appears to be having a grand old time cracking jokes with the very crowd that's supposed to hold him accountable.
Over the weekend while people like me were wringing our hands over the press’ ongoing capitulation with the administration, President Obama was yukking it up at the Gridiron Club with the who's who of the "fourth estate."
He told a room full of smiling political and media elites:
Now, since I don’t often speak to a room full of journalists — (laughter) — I thought I should address a few concerns tonight. Some of you have said that I’m ignoring the Washington press corps — that we’re too controlling. You know what, you were right. I was wrong and I want to apologize in a video you can watch exclusively at whitehouse.gov. (Laughter.)
While we’re on this subject, I want to acknowledge Ed Henry, who is here — who is the fearless leader of the Washington press corps now. (Applause.) And at Ed’s request, tonight I will take one question from the press. Jay, do we have a question? (Laughter.) Surprisingly, it’s a question from Ed Henry. (Laughter.) “Mr. President, will you be taking any questions tonight?” (Laughter.) I’m happy to answer that. No, Ed, I will not. (Laughter.)
The relationship between the press and the presidency: just hilarious, isn’t it?
Watch whistleblower advocate and former DOJ attorney Jesselyn Radack and one of the author's of the NYT's Aulaqi column, Scott Shane, on DemocracyNow!, below.