If the Legal Case for Killing Awlaki Is So Sound, Then Why Maintain Presidential Plausible Deniability?

Glenn Greenwald has another worthwhile post on Democrats’ silence about the Anwar al-Awlaki assassination. But i wanted to push back against one thing he said. After quoting from this Mark Hosenball story on the kill list approval process, Glenn said,

So a panel operating out of the White House — that meets in total secrecy, with no law or rules governing what it can do or how it operates — is empowered to place American citizens on a list to be killed, which (by some process nobody knows) eventually makes its way to the President, who is the final Decider.

But that’s not actually what Hosenball wrote. On the contrary, Hosenball emphasized that Obama’s role in the kill list approval process remains unclear.

The role of the president in ordering or ratifying a decision to target a citizen is fuzzy. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to discuss anything about the process.

[snip]

Other officials said the role of the president in the process was murkier than what Ruppersberger described.

They said targeting recommendations are drawn up by a committee of mid-level National Security Council and agency officials. Their recommendations are then sent to the panel of NSC “principals,” meaning Cabinet secretaries and intelligence unit chiefs, for approval. The panel of principals could have different memberships when considering different operational issues, they said.

[snip]

Several officials said that when Awlaki became the first American put on the target list, Obama was not required personally to approve the targeting of a person. But one official said Obama would be notified of the principals’ decision. If he objected, the decision would be nullified, the official said.

A former official said one of the reasons for making senior officials principally responsible for nominating Americans for the target list was to “protect” the president.

And the Administration has tried to keep Obama’s role murky. In addition to the Vietor refusal to discuss the issue Hosenball notes, Obama very pointedly refused to answer whether he had ordered Awlaki’s killing when asked by Michael Smerconish.

Michael Smerconish: Now comes the news that we’ve taken out Anwar al-Awlaki. Did you give that order?

Obama: I can’t talk about the operational details, Michael. [my emphasis]

This is, sadly, another way that the Awlaki assassination is like Bush’s torture program. There, too, the Administration built in plausible deniability for the President. The initial authorization for the torture–Bush’s September 17, 2001 Finding authorizing the capture and detention of al Qaeda figures–didn’t mention torture at all. The Administration twice refused to tell Jane Harman whether the President had authorized the program. The White House only gave more formal Presidential torture authorization in 2003 and again in 2004 (though even there, it attempted to avoid doing so).

Sure, Bush ultimately boasted that he had approved torture. But for years, the Administration sustained the President’s plausible deniability for the illegal program.

The Obama White House efforts to do the same with Awalaki’s death are all the more striking given that it has not been so coy about Obama’s involvement in ordering hits in the past, most notably when we killed Osama bin Laden. Indeed, they worked hard to foster the narrative of Obama making the difficult decision to order the SEAL operation. And here’s what a Senior Administration Official who may be named John Brennan said the day after the Osama bin Laden killing regarding Obama’s role.

In the middle of March, the President began a series of National Security Council meetings that he chaired to pursue again the intelligence basis and to develop courses of action to bring justice to Osama bin Laden.  Indeed, by my count, the President chaired no fewer than five National Security Council meetings on the topic from the middle of March — March 14th, March 29th, April 12th, April 19th, and April 28th.  And the President gave the final order to pursue the operation that he announced to the nation tonight on the morning — Friday morning of April 29th. [my emphasis]

With OBL, the Administration proudly highlighted Obama’s role in the decision-making process; here, they’re working hard to obscure it.

As with the torture program, that suggests the Administration may believe it important for the President to have plausible deniability about this killing.

Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Reddit0Share on Facebook0Google+1Email to someone

38 Responses to If the Legal Case for Killing Awlaki Is So Sound, Then Why Maintain Presidential Plausible Deniability?

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18
  • 19
  • 20
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
  • 26
  • 27
  • 28
  • 29
  • 30
  • 31
  • 32
  • 33
  • 34
  • 35
  • 36
  • 37
Emptywheel Twitterverse
emptywheel @KevinOfMI Your bike will get jealous.
37mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @nickmanes1 Oh, I prefer EWR to LGA. But traveling GRR>ORD>EWR LGA>ORD>GRR is a good way to remind NYC forfeits world status on airports
40mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @nickmanes1 In fact, O'Hare is not bad if you're actually GOING to Chicago (especially if Amtrak's tracks are frozen).
45mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel Absolute worst is connecting THROUGH OHare to LGA. RT @nickmanes1: Everyone hates O'Hare until they go to LaGuardia. http://t.co/65bYD3T139
46mreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel RT @matthewstoller: 27. This is cultural deforestation. It is no surprise that the winds of fascism can then blow easily onto such a denude…
1hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @astepanovich Not if Congress gets its way! Bring on the immunity!!!
3hreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV RT @the_intercept: How gun violence compares with "domestic terror" as a threat to Americans: http://t.co/dIgIWQYQdB http://t.co/GmFp7Rr8zc
3hreplyretweetfavorite
JimWhiteGNV @pastordan Time to bake more and put them into protective custody!
3hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @AllThingsHLS It's that kind of cold that makes us resilient at the most important moments. ;p
3hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @astepanovich Right: Sue loudly, 3 months late, as a way to avoid your own liability?
3hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @AllThingsHLS You're going on Twitter where most are on E Coast/MW & claiming 41° is cold? It's been months since some of us have see that
3hreplyretweetfavorite
emptywheel @PGEddington Not least bc this looks counterproductive. @WhiteHouse
3hreplyretweetfavorite
October 2011
S M T W T F S
« Sep   Nov »
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031