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Tom Engelhardt Headshot

How the White House Became a Killing Machine

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Imagine this: a president and his top officials as self-professed assassins -- and proud of it, even attempting to gain political capital from it. It's not that American presidents have never been associated with assassination attempts before. At a National Security Council meeting, Dwight D. Eisenhower personally ordered the CIA to "eliminate" Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, then feared as a future "Castro of Africa." "After a dead silence of fifteen seconds," Tim Weiner tells us in Legacy of Ashes, his history of the CIA, "the meeting went on." And the Kennedy brothers were evidently involved in at least one attempt to kill Fidel Castro, while the CIA of Lyndon Johnson's era mounted a massive assassination program in Vietnam. Still, in those days, something dark and distasteful clung to the idea and presidents preferred to maintain what was called "plausible deniability" when it came to such efforts. (In 1981, by Executive Order, President Ronald Reagan actually banned assassination by the U.S. government.)

Now, top officials connected to the White House proudly leak details about their ongoing efforts to use drones to assassinate obscure suspected terrorists in the backlands of the planet. They take pride in comparing their activities to a religious calling. They want the public to know that they and the president spend significant time and effort on such "targeted killings." The most recent case to see the light of day is the prospective assassination of an American citizen and suspected "al-Qaeda facilitator," evidently in the tribal borderlands of Pakistan. When it comes to this possible future assassination, they seem eager to emphasize via leaks the care they are taking in preparing the way.

In the process, they have produced legalistic documents so secret that they can't be shown to the public, though their existence and import can indeed be publicized. These justify to their satisfaction the killing of Americans without what once would have been considered "due process" or any role whatsoever for the actual legal system. The president and his top officials are ready at a moment's notice to discuss in public, with a legalistic turn of mind and a finicky attention to bureaucratic detail, whether such killings can properly be carried out in the U.S. as they are abroad, or whether the angels of death should be the U.S. military or the CIA -- as if this were of any legally binding import. (Congress, in turn, has been balking at appropriating money for the military to take over more of the CIA's drone killings.) No less striking, the media is by now almost instantly bored with such reports, which prove, at best, to be minor one-day ripples in the vast tide of the news.

And in the face of all this, Americans seem to exhibit a remarkable lack of interest. The transformation of the White House into a killing machine? Whether any of this has anything to do with legality? More than 12 years after the 9/11 attacks, it's evidently just everyday life in America. That the president is our assassin-in-chief and that drones are acceptable weapons of choice in such killings are givens. It's also a given that, in the name of American security, anything goes as long as it's wrapped in an exculpatory, feel-good legalistic package, even if it bears no actual relationship to what Americans might once have called legality. Today, in "Drone Killing the Fifth Amendment," Peter Van Buren, ex-State Department whistleblower and author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, explores the deep derangement of all this and what it means in the building of a "post-Constitutional America."