How does “targeted assassination” work in the Obama administration?

Alternate title: Who is America’s real Death Czar — Barack Obama or John Brennen?

We talked about Obama’s assaults on civil liberties and his expansion of Bush II’s definition of executive power a number of times. For example:

The latest group of stories swirling around the President’s “Right To Execute Citizens” — is there any other way to put it? — are these, which I’ve been having a hard time reconciling. Who’s in charge of the President’s Executive Kill Program? Obama, or an executive assistant — an assistant in charge of execution?

First the candidates, then the answer.

Is John Brennan America’s Death Czar?

Let’s start with Adam Serwer in Mother Jones (all emphasis and reparagraphing mine):

The Associated Press recently reported that White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan is America’s new death czar—the individual most responsible for overseeing the Obama administration’s targeted killing of suspected terrorists.

Serwer goes on to question the “morals of targeted killing,” a subject we won’t get into here. If you come here often, you know where I stand.

Here’s more on Brennan’s new toy from Glen Greenwald:

John Brennan’s new power
President Obama’s counter-terrorism chief has “seized the lead” in secretly determining who will die by US drone

In November, 2008, media reports strongly suggested that President Obama intended to name John Brennan as CIA Director. But controversy over Brennan’s recent history — he was a Bush-era CIA official who expressly advocated “enhanced interrogation techniques” and rendition — forced him to “withdraw” from consideration, as he publicly issued a letter citing “strong criticism in some quarters” of his CIA advocacy.

Undeterred by any of that unpleasantness, President Obama instead named Brennan to be his chief counter-Terrorism adviser, a position with arguably more influence that he would have had as CIA chief. … Given his history, it is unsurprising that Brennan has been at the heart of many of the administration’s most radical acts, including claiming the power to target American citizens for assassination-by-CIA without due process and the more general policy of secretly targeting people for death by drone.

Now, Brennan’s power has increased even more: he’s on his way to becoming the sole arbiter of life and death, the unchecked judge, jury and executioner of whomever he wants dead (of course, when Associated Press in this report uses the words “Terrorist” or “al-Qaida operative,” what they actually mean is: a person accused by the U.S. Government, with no due process, of involvement in Terrorism)[.]

Greenwald quotes the Boston Globe, which says:

White House counterterror chief John Brennan has seized the lead in choosing which terrorists will be targeted for drone attacks or raids, establishing a new procedure for both military and CIA targets. The effort concentrates power over the use of lethal U.S. force outside war zones within one small team at the White House.

The process, which is about a month old, means Brennan’s staff consults with the State Department and other agencies as to who should go on the target list, making the Pentagon’s role less relevant, according to two current and three former U.S. officials aware of the evolution in how the government goes after terrorists….

Brennan’s effort gives him greater input earlier in the process, before making final recommendation to President Barack Obama. Officials outside the White House expressed concern that drawing more of the decision-making process to Brennan’s office could turn it into a pseudo military headquarters, entrusting the fate of al-Qaida targets to a small number of senior officials.

Wait — Isn’t Obama his own Death Czar?

Then we got a taste of Obama the Decider in a major story in the New York Times. It’s quite the profile. If war is your game, it will send a familiar tough-guy tingle straight up your leg.

If you’re appalled at the killing, however, and appalled especially by “killed because of a data signature,” you’ll likely be stunned by Obama’s blasé approach.

The piece by Jo Becker and Scott Shane is long; here’s a taste:

Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will

Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

Can you feel the praise? There’s quite a lot of it. And then there’s this:

[The subjects of our interviews] describe a paradoxical leader who shunned the legislative deal-making required to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, but approves lethal action without hand-wringing. While he was adamant about narrowing the fight and improving relations with the Muslim world, he has followed the metastasizing enemy into new and dangerous lands.

When he applies his lawyering skills to counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign against Al Qaeda — even when it comes to killing an Am
erican cleric in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was “an easy one.”

And (h/t Steve Hynd):

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties [that] in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Still thrilled?

So which is it — Brennan or Obama? Who’s really swinging that manly pipe?

Enter Marcy Wheeler to make the two stories play together. Her bottom line — Brennan is Obama’s Dick Cheney, the deliberately obscured power behind the murdering (my phrase) throne.

She calls it an “Angler 2.0″ story, a reference to Barton Gellman’s book on Cheney, Angler.

Angler 2.0: Brennan Wields His Puppet Strings Differently

As I said earlier, the parallel between the Jo Becker/Scott Shane [New York Times] Angler 2.0 story and the earlier series by Becker and Barton Gellman is hard to miss.

But I’m very interested in how the stories are structured differently. With Angler 1.0 [Gellman’s explanation of the Cheney–Bush relationship], the story was very clearly about Dick Cheney and the methods he used to manipulate Bush into following his advice.

Here, the story is really about John Brennan, Obama’s Cheney, portrayed deep in thought and foregrounding Obama in the article’s picture [see here]. Indeed, halfway through, the story even gives biographical background on Brennan, the classic “son of Irish immigrants” story, along with Harold Koh’s dubious endorsement of Brennan’s “moral rectitude.”

But instead of telling the story of John Brennan, Obama’s Cheney, the story pitches Obama as the key decision-maker–a storyline Brennan has always been one of the most aggressive pitchmen for, including when he confirmed information on the Anwar al-Awlaki strike he shouldn’t have.

In a sense, then, Brennan has done Cheney one better: seed a story of his own power, but sell it as a sign of the President’s steeliness.

This is an excellent how-to-read-the-media piece. Good job; please do click over.

Note that Brennan’s supposed “moral rectitude” is Obama’s necessary ground cover. After all, Obama is the drone-joke president:

Is an alt-Obama characterization starting to assert itself, one that they need to tamp down? One can only hope.

Excellent work by Wheeler, Greenwald and Serwer. I suggest you read, if you do, in this order — first Greenwald, who catches the truth. Then Wheeler, who catches the PR job done by the writers at the Times.

Then read the Times story itself if you wish, to see the PR job for yourself. Finally, Serwer is excellent on the problem the muscular “Left” has when “the man who would be king” is one of their own.

GP

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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States. Click here for more. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius and Facebook.

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