By VICKI DIVOLL
January 16, 2013
The New York Times

PRESIDENT OBAMA has refused to tell Congress or the American people why he believes the Constitution gives, or fails to deny, him the authority to secretly target and kill American citizens who he suspects are involved in terrorist activities overseas. So far he has killed three that we know of.

Presidents had never before, to our knowledge, targeted specific Americans for military strikes. There are no court decisions that tell us if he is acting lawfully. Mr. Obama tells us not to worry, though, because his lawyers say it is fine, because experts guide the decisions and because his advisers have set up a careful process to help him decide whom he should kill.

He must think we should be relieved.

The three Americans known to have been killed, in two drone strikes in Yemen in the fall of 2011, are Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was born in New Mexico; Samir Khan, a naturalized American citizen who had lived in New York and North Carolina, and was killed alongside Mr. Awlaki; and, in a strike two weeks later, Mr. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was born in Colorado.

Most of us think these people were probably terrorists anyway. So the president’s reassurances have been enough to keep criticism at an acceptable level for the White House. Democrats in Congress and in the press have only gingerly questioned the claims by a Democratic president that he is right about the law and careful when he orders drone attacks on our citizens. And Republicans, who favor aggressive national security powers for the executive branch, look forward to the day when one of their own can wield them again.

But a few of our representatives have spoken up — sort of. Several months ago, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, began limply requesting the Department of Justice memorandums that justify the targeted killing program. At a committee hearing, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., reminded of the request, demurred and shared a rueful chuckle with the senator. Mr. Leahy did not want to be rude, it seems — though some of us remember him being harder on former President George W. Bush’s attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, in 2005.

So, even though Congress has the absolute power under the Constitution to receive these documents, the Democratic-controlled Senate has not fought this president to get them. If the senators did, and the president held fast to his refusal, they could go to court and demand them, and I believe they would win. Perhaps even better, they could skip getting the legal memos and go right to the meat of the matter — using oversight and perhaps legislating to control the president’s killing powers. That isn’t happening either.

Thank goodness we have another branch of government to step into the fray. It is the job of the federal courts to interpret the Constitution and laws, and thus to define the boundaries of the powers of the branches of government, including their own.

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