President Barack Obama on Monday refused to acknowledge the existence of a presidential “kill list” despite multiple assertions by top-ranking officials in his administration that the list exists.
Ben Swann, a reporter for Cincinnati’s FOX 19, asked the president, “How do you as president utilize that power [of the presidential kill list] to assassinate … U.S. citizens?”
“You’re basing this on reports in the news that have never been confirmed by me, and I don’t talk about our national security decisions in that way,” the president responded.
Swann recognized that Obama himself has not confirmed the reports, but several high-ranking officials in his administration have.
More than three dozen of the president’s current and former advisers discussed the kill list in interviews for a New York Times article, including former Chief of Staff Bill Daley, former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and John Brennan, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser, who personally guides Obama through the process of deciding whether or not to put a person on the kill list.
In September 2011, Obama approved a drone strike on American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a regional al-Qaida commander in Yemen. The next month, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, also an American citizen, was killed by a drone strike authorized by Obama.
“This is an easy one,” Daley, Obama’s former chief of staff, recalled the president saying when ordering al-Awlaki’s assassination.
A secret Justice Department memo supporting the assassination decreed that American citizens’ Fifth Amendment rights to due process could be satisfied by executive branch deliberations. The memo has not been released to the public.
Daley questioned the purpose of the program, wondering, “One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20? At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”
Obama told Swann that his administration’s “goal has been to focus on al-Qaida, to focus narrowly on those who would pose an imminent threat to the United States of America and that’s why … a whole tier of al-Qaida leadership has been taken off the field. And that’s part of what has allowed us to now begin to transition out of Afghanistan.”
Yet Swann noted that the killings of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son occurred in Yemen, rather than Afghanistan.
Swann accused the president of “leaking his use of … a power that violates the most basic principle in the Bill of Rights … when it’s politically expedient then claiming it can’t be discussed when it’s not.”
“Members of his administration have no problem talking about the kill list to reporters. Maybe because those reporters have helped to frame the president as tough on terror,” Swann suggested.
The New York Times article exposing the existence of the kill list also noted its possible political benefit to Obama, writing that his “record has eroded the political perception that Democrats are weak on national security.”
Blair sees the kill list as a negative for the United States’ image abroad, but as a short-term boon for Obama’s domestic popularity. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said.
“It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”