Now let me be clear: We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability. For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable — a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass.
The president went on to trumpet the fact that he banned the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, saying, “I know some have argued that brutal methods like waterboarding were necessary to keep us safe. I could not disagree more.” Mr. Obama argued that (among other things) they undermine the rule of law. And during the 2008 campaign and shortly thereafter, Obama insisted that his policies would “regain America’s moral stature in the world.” This was a common Obama theme: He would act in ways that respect international law and human rights and remove the stain from America’s reputation.
I thought of all of this in light of this report by NBC’s Michael Isikoff. Thanks to Isikoff, we’ve learned that “a confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be ‘senior operational leaders’ of al-Qaida or ‘an associated force’ even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.”