The United States has been targeting people for assassination for many years, as in President John F. Kennedy’s secret order authorizing covert efforts to kill Fidel Castro. That and other official assassination attempts were carefully staged to provide “plausible deniability” to distance presidents and other top officials from those actions.
A Boston lawyer told an audience of Maine law students and judges in Portland last week that President Barack Obama seems to have changed the rules and gone public with state assassination attempts through the use of drones not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and Yemen, “where we are not at war, at least not in any accepted sense.”
The speaker was Stephen H. Oleskey, a Boston lawyer best known as co-leader of a successful pro bono habeas corpus challenge on behalf of six Bosnian detainees held indefinitely and tortured, they say, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He delivered the annual Frank M. Coffin lecture named for the late longtime member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
Mr. Oleskey said there was a “major and disturbing difference between past assassinations of public officials and what is happening today.”
He went on: “Today, President Obama appears willing to have it publicly known that he (a former professor of constitutional law at one of this country’s legal law schools) has personally and directly authorized such extreme actions.”
Mr. Oleskey focused on the targeted radical American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of inciting Maj. Nidal Hassan’s killing of 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, a year ago and Nigerian Umar Abdulmuttala’s failed Christmas Day 2009 plane bombing en route to Detroit.
Assuming that Mr. Awlaki did incite those terrible actions, Mr. Oleskey concluded that he might well be convicted in a criminal trial of being an accessory and possibly an accomplice to multiple counts of murder and attempted murder. “His assassination would undoubtedly be the only quick and expedient way to subject him to the most extreme penalty our federal law allows for acts of terrorism: the death penalty. But that ultimate penalty under our laws can otherwise only be authorized by statute and imposed after public trial before a federal judge and civilian jury, with a public sentencing, together with all the attendant due process protections that our system provides.”
The lecturer made it clear which course he preferred: “What is expedient and effective is not necessarily lawful or ultimately even sound, long-term policy.” He found disturbing “the general lack of outcry by the press about this extraordinary development.”
He warned against dignifying the self-image of radical Islamists by accepting their worldview of total war, “while needlessly diminishing our reliance on a criminal justice system that has long been justly admired through much of the world” for its procedural protections and generally transparent outcomes.
His audience and the rest of Americans will do well to ponder his warning about the future of America’s judicial system and what the “war against terrorism” is doing to it.