For all his faults and failures, President Lyndon Johnson put it correctly: With its assassination program, the CIA was operating a “damned Murder Inc.” Not only does Johnson’s pointed observation observe the true nature of the federal government’s assassination program, it also serves to show that assassination has been an integral part of the U.S. national-security state apparatus since long before the 9/11 attacks.
Johnson wasn’t the only one who got it right. When an assassination team established by U.S.-supported Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet assassinated former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and 25-year-old American citizen Ronni Moffitt on the streets of Washington, D.C., the U.S. Justice Department called it murder and criminally prosecuted the members of Pinochet’s assassination team in U.S. federal district court, notwithstanding the fact that the Pinochet regime justified its assassination program under the rubric of the war on communism.
Not so anymore though. Yesterday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, speaking on behalf of President Obama, released a letter that purported to justify Obama’s assassination program under the rubric of the war on terrorism. Echoing Pinochet, Holder argued that federal assassination isn’t murder but rather legal wartime killing.
There’s just one big problem with Holder’s reasoning, however, one that he, not surprisingly, failed to address. That problem is this: terrorism is a federal criminal offense. It’s listed in the U.S. Code as a federal crime. Every year, in fact, the Justice Department brings criminal prosecutions against people who are accused of having committed acts of terrorism or conspiracy to do so.
If terrorism is an act of war, then what in the world is the Justice Department doing bringing criminal charges in U.S. District Court against accused terrorists?
The answer to this apparent riddle is a simple one: After 9/11, the Bush administration figured out a clever but devious way to avoid the provisions of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution whenever they wanted. U.S. officials, Bush decreed, would now wield the option of treating an accused terrorist as either a criminal defendant or an enemy combatant…