Sunday’s New York Times reported that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has produced a fifty-page legal memo that purportedly authorized President Obama to order the killing of a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, without a trial. Last month, the US carried out that order with a drone strike in Yemen that killed al-Awlaki and another US citizen traveling with him. The strike was front-page news, and apparently was undertaken with the approval of Yemen authorities, yet as it was a “covert operation,” the Obama administration has declined even to acknowledge that it ordered the killing.
So now we know that there is a secret memo that authorized a secret killing of a US citizen—and both the memo and the killing remain officially “secret” despite having been reported on the front page of The New York Times. Whatever one thinks about the merits of presidents ordering that citizens be killed by remote-controlled missiles, surely there is something fundamentally wrong with a democracy that allows its leader to do so in “secret,” without even demanding that he defend his actions in public.