Archive for February, 2013

“The unspoken power dynamics in a police/civilian encounter will generally favor the police, unless the civilian is a local sports hero, the mayor, or a giant who is impervious to bullets.”—Journalist Justin Peters

From time to time throughout history, individuals have been subjected to charges (and eventual punishment) by accusers whose testimony was treated as infallible and inerrant. Once again, we find ourselves repeating history, only this time, it’s the police whose testimony is too often considered beyond reproach and whose accusations have the power to render one’s life over.

In the police state being erected around us, the police can probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance, all with the general blessing of the courts. Making matters worse, however, police dogs—cute, furry, tail-wagging mascots with a badge—have now been elevated to the ranks of inerrant, infallible sanctimonious accusers with the power of the state behind them. This is largely due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Florida v. Harris, in which a unanimous Court declared roadside stops to be Constitution-free zones where police may search our vehicles based upon a hunch and the presence of a frisky canine.

This is what one would call a slow death by a thousand cuts, only it’s the Fourth Amendment being inexorably bled to death. This latest wound, in which a unanimous Supreme Court determined that police officers may use drug-sniffing dogs to conduct warrantless searches of cars during routine traffic stops, comes on the heels of recent decisions by the Court that give police the green light to taser defenseless motorists, strip search non-violent suspects arrested for minor incidents, and break down people’s front doors without evidence that they have done anything wrong.

These are the hallmarks of the emerging American police state, where police officers, no longer mere servants of the people entrusted with keeping the peace, are part of an elite ruling class dependent on keeping the masses corralled, under control, and treated like suspects and enemies rather than citizens. Whether it’s police officers breaking through people’s front doors and shooting them dead in their homes or strip searching innocent motorists on the side of the road, in a police state such as ours, these instances of abuse are not condemned by the government. Rather, they are continually validated by a judicial system that kowtows to every police demand, no matter how unjust, no matter how in opposition to the Constitution.

The justices of the United States Supreme Court through their deference to police power, preference for security over freedom, and evisceration of our most basic rights for the sake of order and expediency have become the architects of the American police state.

The justices of the United States Supreme Court through their deference to police power, preference for security over freedom, and evisceration of our most basic rights for the sake of order and expediency have become the architects of the American police state.

In Florida v. Harris, for example, the Court was presented with the case of Clayton Harris who, in 2006, was pulled over by Officer William Wheetley for having an expired license tag. During the stop, Wheetley decided that Harris was acting suspicious and requested to search his vehicle. Harris refused, so Wheetley brought out his drug-sniffing dog, Aldo, to walk around Harris’ car. Aldo allegedly alerted to the door handle of Harris’ car, leading Wheetley to search the vehicle.

Although the search of Harris’ car did not turn up any of the drugs which Aldo was actually trained to detect, such as marijuana, Wheetley found pseudophedrine, a common ingredient in cold medicine, and other materials allegedly used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Harris was arrested and released on bail, during which time he was again stopped by Officer Wheetley and again subjected to a warrantless search of his vehicle based upon Aldo’s alert, but this time Wheetley found nothing.

Harris challenged the search, arguing that the police had not provided sufficient evidence that Aldo was a reliable drug-sniffing dog, thus his supposed alert on Harris’ door did not give the officer probable cause to search the vehicle. The Florida Supreme Court agreed, ruling that police should be able to prove that the dog actually has a track record of finding drugs while in the field before it is used as an excuse for a warrantless search.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court did not see it that way. In reversing the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with police by claiming that all that the police need to do to prove probable cause for a search is simply assert that a drug detection dog has received proper training. As such, the Court has now given the police free reign to use dogs as “search warrants on leashes,” justifying any and all police searches of vehicles stopped on the roadside. The ruling turns man’s best friend into an extension of the police state.

The Supreme Court’s decision is particularly alarming when one considers that drug sniffing dogs, even expertly trained dogs with reliable handlers, are rarely accurate. One study demonstrated that dogs were incorrect in drug identification up to 60% of the time. A 2011 study published in Animal Cognition involved a series of tests, some designed to fool the dog and some designed to fool the handler. The dogs in these tests falsely alerted 123 out of a total of 144 times. When a test was designed to fool the handler rather than the dog, the dog was twice as likely to falsely alert.

As the Animal Cognition study shows, dogs are heavily influenced by the behavior and biases of their handlers. If an officer thinks he is likely to find something, whether due to personal bias or because he finds the suspect suspicious, he often cues his dog—consciously or unconsciously—to alert on the area to be searched.

The Supreme Court has now given the police free reign to use dogs as “search warrants on leashes,” justifying any and all police searches of vehicles stopped on the roadside. The Court’s ruling in Florida v. Harris turns man’s best friend into an extension of the police state.

Despite being presented with numerous reports documenting flaws in the use of drug-detection dogs, the U.S. Supreme Court opted to ignore plentiful evidence that drug dog alerts are specious at best. Moreover, the justices also chose to interpret Aldo’s failure to detect any of the drugs he was trained to find during the two sniff searches around Harris’ car as proof of Aldo’s superior sniffing skills rather than glaring proof that drug-sniffing dogs do make mistakes. Incredibly, the Court suggested that the dog alert was due to Aldo having smelled an odor that was transferred to the car door after the defendant used methamphetamine—a supposition that is nearly impossible to prove.

Law enforcement officials have come up with a slew of clever excuses to “explain” the not uncommon phenomenon of dogs that alert but fail to uncover drugs. For example, in 2008, U.S. border patrol agent Christopher Jbara claimed that a dog alerted to a car containing no drugs because the car’s window “had been washed by a window washer on the street… and the water used to clean it could have been contaminated with bong water.” The real reason may be that the odors which dogs are trained to detect are simply chemical compositions found in a number of common products. For example, to a dog, perfume may smell like cocaine, glue may smell like heroin, and mosquito repellant may smell like the drug ecstasy.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision is merely the latest in a long line of abuses justified by an institution concerned more with establishing order and protecting government agents than with upholding the rights enshrined in the Constitution. For example, in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Kentucky v. King that police may smash down doors of homes or apartments without a warrant when in search of illegal drugs which they suspect might be destroyed.  Despite the fact that police busted in on the wrong suspect in the wrong apartment, the Court sanctioned the warrantless raid, saying that police had acted lawfully and that was all that mattered.

In April 2012, a divided Supreme Court ruled in Florence v. Burlington that any person who is arrested and processed at a jail house, regardless of the severity of his or her offense (i.e., they can be guilty of nothing more than a minor traffic offense), can be subjected to a strip search by police or jail officials, which involves exposing the genitals and the buttocks.

This “license to probe” is being extended to roadside stops, as police officers throughout the country have begun performing roadside strip searches without any evidence of wrongdoing and without a warrant. For example, Angel Dobbs and her niece, who were pulled over by a Texas state trooper on July 13, 2012, allegedly for flicking cigarette butts out of the car window, were subjected to roadside cavity searches of their anus and vagina. The officer claimed to be searching for marijuana. No marijuana was found.

With case after case stacking up in which the courts empower the police to run roughshod over citizens’ rights, the Constitution be damned, the outlook is decidedly grim. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court still has to rule on another drug-sniffing, dog-related case, Florida v. Jardines, which challenges warrantless searches of individuals’ homes based on questionable dog alerts. For those hoping that our rights will be restored or at least protected, you could have a long wait.

Indeed, the next decision from the Supreme Court might just take the Fourth Amendment down for the count. — John W. Whitehead

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From today’s New York Times, “A Company That Runs Prisons Will Have Its Name on a Stadium”:

Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton, firmed a deal to rename its football buildingGEO Group Stadium. Perhaps that pushed stadium naming to its zenith, if only because the GEO Group is a private prison corporation.

For this partnership, there is no obvious precedent.

The university’s president described the deal as “wonderful” and the company as “well run” and by a notable alumnus. But it also left some unsettled, including those who study the business of sports and track the privatization of the prison industry. To those critics, this was a jarring case of the lengths colleges and teams will go to produce revenue, of the way that everything seems to be for sale now in sports — and to anyone with enough cash…

Critics say the cost may be too high. One is Bob Libal, the executive director of Grassroots Leadership, a social justice group that opposes private prison systems.

“It’s startling to see a stadium will be named after them,” Libal said. “It’s like calling something Blackwater Stadium. This is a company whose record is marred by human rights abuses, by lawsuits, by unnecessary deaths of people in their custody and a whole series of incidents that really draw into question their ability to successfully manage a prison facility.”

GEO Group reported revenues in excess of $1.6 billion in 2011, income generated mostly from state and federal prisons and detention centers for illegal immigrants. The company owns or runs more than 100 properties that operate more than 73,000 beds in sites across the world. It holds nearly $3 billion in assets.

The company has been opposed by civil liberty and human rights groups and immigrant rights organizations. It has been cited by state and federal regulators and lost a series of high-profile lawsuits.

In an age when freedom is fast becoming the exception rather than the rule, imprisoning Americans in private prisons run by mega-corporations has turned into a cash cow for big business. At one time, the American penal system operated under the idea that dangerous criminals needed to be put under lock and key in order to protect society. Today, as states attempt to save money by outsourcing prisons to private corporations, the flawed yet retributive American “system of justice” is being replaced by an even more flawed and insidious form of mass punishment based upon profit and expediency.

As author Adam Gopnik reports for the New Yorker:

[A] growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.

Consider this: despite the fact that violent crime in America has been on the decline, the nation’s incarceration rate has tripled since 1980. Approximately 13 million people are introduced to American jails in any given year. Incredibly, more than six million people are under “correctional supervision” in America, meaning that one in fifty Americans are working their way through the prison system, either as inmates, or while on parole or probation. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the majority of those being held in federal prisons are convicted of drug offenses—namely, marijuana. Presently, one out of every 100 Americans is serving time behind bars.

Little wonder, then, that public prisons are overcrowded. Yet while providing security, housing, food, medical care, etc., for six million Americans is a hardship for cash-strapped states, to profit-hungry corporations such as Corrections Corp of America (CCA) and GEO Group, the leaders in the partnership corrections industry, it’s a $70 billion gold mine. Thus, with an eye toward increasing its bottom line, CCA has floated a proposal to prison officials in 48 states offering to buy and manage public prisons at a substantial cost savings to the states. In exchange, and here’s the kicker, the prisons would have to contain at least 1,000 beds and states would have agree to maintain a 90% occupancy rate in the privately run prisons for at least 20 years.

The problem with this scenario, as Roger Werholtz, former Kansas secretary of corrections, recognizes is that while states may be tempted by the quick infusion of cash, they “would be obligated to maintain these (occupancy) rates and subtle pressure would be applied to make sentencing laws more severe with a clear intent to drive up the population.” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what has happened. Among the laws aimed at increasing the prison population and growing the profit margins of special interest corporations like CCA are three-strike laws (mandating sentences of 25 years to life for multiple felony convictions) and “truth-in-sentencing” legislation (mandating that those sentenced to prison serve most or all of their time).

And yes, in case you were wondering, part of the investment pitch for CCA and its cohort GEO Group include the profits to be made in building “kindler, gentler” minimum-security facilities designed for detaining illegal immigrants, especially low-risk detainees like women and children. All of this, of course, comes at taxpayer expense.

“And this is where it gets creepy,” observes reporter Joe Weisenthal for Business Insider, “because as an investor you’re pulling for scenarios where more people are put in jail.” In making its pitch to potential investors, CCA points out that private prisons comprise a unique, recession-resistant investment opportunity, with more than 90% of the market up for grabs, little competition, high recidivism among prisoners, and the potential for “accelerated growth in inmate populations following the recession.” In other words, caging humans for profit is a sure bet, because the U.S. population is growing dramatically and the prison population will grow proportionally as well, and more prisoners equal more profits.

In this way, minor criminals, from drug users to petty thieves, are being handed over to corporations for lengthy prison sentences which do nothing to protect society or prevent recidivism. This is the culmination of an inverted justice system which has come to characterize the United States, a justice system based upon increasing the power and wealth of the corporate-state. — John W. Whitehead

Talk about freedom going to the dogs…

In a 9-0 decision in Florida v. Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that police may use drug-sniffing dogs to carry out warrantless searches during routine traffic stops, despite the fact that published scientific studies show that drug dog alerts are wrong as much as 56% of the time, and are heavily influenced by the biases of the dog’s handler.

This ruling undercuts the entire basis of the Fourth Amendment, which was designed to protect us from unreasonable searches and seizures. When dog sniffs, which have proven to be unreliable, are considered probable cause for police to search your property without a warrant—whether it’s your home, your car or your person—then none of our rights are secure.

As CBS News points out, “The irony in this case, Florida v. Harris, is that the trained narcotics dog (named Aldo) did not find the drugs he was trained to find when he prompted an officer to search Clayton Harris’ truck.”

The case began in June 2006, when a Florida county sheriff stopped a vehicle driven by Clayton Harris for an expired license tag. When Harris refused the sheriff’s request for consent to search his vehicle, a drug-detection dog was deployed and conducted a “free air sniff” of the exterior of the vehicle. When the dog alerted to the door handle on the driver’s side, the officer conducted a warrantless search of the interior of the vehicle. Although the search didn’t turn up anything the dog was trained to find, the officer reportedly found pseudoephedrine and materials used for making methamphetamine.

Harris was arrested and charged.

Two months later, Harris was once again pulled over in his vehicle by the same police officer and drug-sniffing dog. Once again the dog “alerted,” and once again the search failed to turn up anything for which the dog was trained to find. Only this time, nothing of interest was found whatsoever.

In court, Harris’ attorneys moved to suppress the evidence found as a result of the search of his vehicle, asserting that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The Florida Supreme Court granted the motion on appeal, however, ruling that the state’s claim that the dog was trained and certified to detect narcotics, standing alone, is not sufficient to establish the dog’s reliability for purposes of determining probable cause. The court held that the state has the burden of showing the officer had a reasonable basis for believing the dog was reliable by presenting evidence on matters such as training field performance records.

In asking the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the lower court’s ruling, The Rutherford Institute documented empirical research showing dog alerts are not inherently reliable. One recent study at the University of California—Davis, showed that in a test where handlers were told drugs might be found at the test site, but no drugs were present, dogs gave false positive alerts an astonishing 85% of the time. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule on a related case, Florida v. Jardines, which challenges the use of drug-sniffing dogs by police to carry out warrantless searches of private homes. The Rutherford Institute also filed an amicus brief in Florida v. Jardines. — John W. Whitehead

“If you’re not loyal to your fellow man, you’re an animal.”—Pike, The Wild Bunch

“America doesn’t have many myths. The one myth we have is the Western.”—film director John Carpenter

As long as there are movies, there will be Westerns. A love letter to a time in America when heroes loomed large and men (and women) lived and died by a strict code of ethics, the Western genre never seems to wear out its welcome, re-appearing in the box office in one form or another every few years. Sometimes it’s a remake of a classic, as was the case with the Coen brothers’ 2010 nod to True Grit. Sometimes it’s a comic send-up to the best of the Wild West, as offered up by Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles or the animated Rango. And then there are the movies that disguise themselves as sci-fi or horror but are Westerns at heart, such as the Star Wars epics and many of the films of John Carpenter, an avowed fan of the Western whose influence can be seen in everything from his The Thing to Vampires.

Clearly, the Western is here to stay. Even this year’s crop of Oscar nominees includes a Western, Django Unchaineddirected by Quentin Tarantino. Unlike Django, however, some of the best Westerns to hit the big screen were passed over by the Academy Awards. So as a tribute to the classic Western, the ones that stay with you long after the credits have faded and tell a tale that, at the end of the day, resonates because it speaks to the things most people care about at a visceral level—family, honor, truth, values, loyalty—here are ten of my favorite Western classics:

My Darling Clementine (1946). Recounting the events leading up to and including the gunfight at the OK Corral, this is one of the best Westerns ever made. Directed by the legendary John Ford and with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, the film has plenty of true grit and old-fashioned values. Great cast, including Victor Mature and Walter Brennan. No Academy Awards.

 

Red River (1948). This classic Howard Hawks film is an epic that focuses on a grueling cattle drive which foments a battle of wills between father (John Wayne) and son (Montgomery Clift). A great film and cast, including Walter Brennan. Wayne should have won the Oscar for best actor hands down. No Academy Awards.

 

Shane (1953). A retired gunfighter (Alan Ladd) helps a homestead family. Considered by some to be the best Western ever made, Ladd’s performance was Oscar worthy (he wasn’t even nominated). Great supporting cast, including Jack Palance and Van Heflin. Remade by Clint Eastwood in 1985 as Pale Rider. One Oscar for cinematography.

 

The Searchers (1956). Another great John Ford film starring John Wayne as a hard-driving man who pursues his niece who has been kidnapped by the Indians. A much-imitated film and remade in various forms such as Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979). Another great performance by John Wayne, with Jeffrey Hunter strong in support. No Academy Awards.

 

Rio Bravo (1959). This revered and much-imitated Howard Hawks film centers on a sheriff (John Wayne) who takes a murderer into custody and faces a siege of the jail by a powerful cattle baron. Great acting, especially by Walter Brennan. A fine moment in the film is the duet by Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin. A favorite of Quentin Tarantino and remade in different forms over the years, most notably by John Carpenter in 1976 with Assault on Precinct 13. No Academy Awards.

 

The Magnificent Seven (1960). This epic Western is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic The Seven Samurai (1954). Mexican villagers hire gunmen to protect them from bandits who ravage their homes. Most of the actors, who at the time were unknown, became film legends—Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson. This film is replete with interesting characters, including Coburn as a knife-wielding cowboy. No Academy Awards.

 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). A tough cowboy (John Wayne) and an idealistic lawyer (James Stewart) join forces to battle a vicious outlaw (Lee Marvin) and his gang. At heart a love story, this is the last great Western by John Ford. Strong on values and sacrifice. Oscar-worthy performance by Lee Marvin. No Academy Awards.

 

The Professionals (1966). This precursor to The Wild Bunch is an action-packed ride. Four mercenaries are hired by a cattle baron to rescue his young wife from Mexican kidnappers. An amazing cast of Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Jack Palance and Robert Ryan, but Woody Strode steals many scenes as a bow-and-arrow-wielding sharpshooter. No Academy Awards.

 

The Wild Bunch (1969). One of the most influential films ever made. A group of aging outlaws, being true to their code, take on a Mexican gang that greatly outnumbers them in order to save a comrade. Highly influential and much-analyzed film that helped open the door to realistic violence in movies. Another great cast, including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Warren Oates, among others. This assured director Sam Peckinpah a place in film history. Remade by Walter Hill in 1980 as The Long Riders. No Academy Awards.

 

Open Range (2003). Kevin Costner, as director and actor, revives the glory of the classic Western. Two cowboys peacefully graze their cattle on the open range until they run up against a land-grabbing cattle baron. Old-fashioned values and a love for the Western genre make this the best modern adaptation of Western genre. Fine cast, including Robert Duvall and Annette Bening. No Academy Awards.

 

“There’s things that gnaw at a man worse than dying,” declares Costner’s character, Charley Waite, in Open Range. And really, that’s what the Western is all about: knowing what’s worth living and dying for, and then taking your stand. Certainly in our day and age of few heroes, and even fewer individuals who would sacrifice it all rather than forfeit their values or their freedoms, and where those who do take a stand (whether it be for principle, honor, freedom or the right to hold onto one’s property) are rarely commended, the Western is a powerful reminder that once we were such a people. Time alone will tell if we can ever regain that intrepid, indomitable, heroic spirit that conquered the Wild West and has become the stuff of legends. — John W. Whitehead

 

“Much of our foreign policy now depends on the hope of benevolent dictators and philosopher kings. The law can’t help. The law is what the kings say it is.”—Ta-Nehisi Coateswriting for The Atlantic

“If George Bush had done this, it would have been stopped.”—Joe Scarborough, former Republican congressman and current MSNBC pundit

When Barack Obama ascended to the presidency in 2008, there was a sense, at least among those who voted for him, that the country might change for the better. Those who watched in awe as President Bush chipped away at our civil liberties over the course of his two terms as president thought that maybe this young, charismatic Senator from Illinois would reverse course and put an end to some of the Bush administration’s worst transgressions—the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists, the torture, the black site prisons, and the never-ending wars that have drained our resources, to name just a few.

A few short years later, that fantasy has proven to be just that: a fantasy. Indeed, Barack Obama has not only carried on the Bush legacy, but has taken it to its logical conclusion. As president, Obama has gone beyond Guantanamo Bay, gone beyond spying on Americans’ emails and phone calls, and gone beyond bombing countries without Congressional authorization. He now claims, as revealed in a leaked Department of Justice memo, the right to murder any American citizen the world over, so long as he has a feeling that they might, at some point in the future, pose a threat to the United States.

Let that sink in. The President of the United States of America believes he has the absolute right to kill you based upon secret “evidence” that you might be a terrorist. Not only does he think he can kill you, but he believes he has the right to do so in secret, without formally charging you of any crime and providing you with an opportunity to defend yourself in a court of law. To top it all off, the memo asserts that these decisions about whom to kill are not subject to any judicial review whatsoever.

The President of the United States of America believes he has the absolute right to kill you based upon secret “evidence” that you might be a terrorist. Not only does he think he can kill you, but he believes he has the right to do so in secret, without formally charging you of any crime and providing you with an opportunity to defend yourself in a court of law. To top it all off, the memo asserts that these decisions about whom to kill are not subject to any judicial review whatsoever. This is what one would call Mafia-style justice, when one powerful overlord—in this case, the president—gets to decide whether you live or die based solely on his own peculiar understanding of right and wrong. This is how far we have fallen in the twelve years since 9/11, through our negligence and our failure to hold our leaders in both political parties accountable to the principles enshrined in the Constitution.

This is what one would call Mafia-style justice, when one powerful overlord—in this case, the president—gets to decide whether you live or die based solely on his own peculiar understanding of right and wrong. This is how far we have fallen in the twelve years since 9/11, through our negligence and our failure to hold our leaders in both political parties accountable to the principles enshrined in the Constitution.

According to the leaked Department of Justice memo, there are certain “conditions” under which it is acceptable for the president to kill a U.S. citizen without the basic trappings of American justice, i.e., a lawyer and a fair hearing before a neutral judge.

First, you have to be suspected of being a “senior operational leader” of al-Qaeda or an “associated force.” Of course, neither of these terms is defined. Making matters worse, the government doesn’t actually have to prove that you’re an “operational leader.” It simply has to suspect that you are. (Of course, if all it takes for the government to pull the trigger and kill a U.S. citizen is a hunch, then the rest of the conditions set out in the memo are moot.)

Second, capturing you has to be “infeasible.” Easy enough, since “infeasibility of capture” includes being unable to capture someone without putting American troops in harm’s way.

Third, you must pose “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” whether or not you can actually execute an attack on our soil. Before you breathe a sigh of relief that perhaps your neck is safe now, keep in mind that the imminence requirement “does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.” The Bush administration should get some credit here, since it was their creative parsing of the “imminent” threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his so-called weapons of mass destruction that inspired the Obama lawyers to play footloose with the laws on killing American citizens.

In short, by simply asserting that an American citizen is an enemy of the United States, the Obama administration has given itself the authority to murder that individual. This pales in comparison to George W. Bush’s assertion that he could detain an American citizen indefinitely simply by labeling him an enemy combatant.

Compounding this travesty, the Obama administration also insists that the power to target a U.S. citizen for murder applies to any “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government,” not just the president. Therefore, any bureaucrat or politician, if appointed to a high enough position, can target an American for execution by way of drone strikes.

It’s been done before. Without proving that they were “senior operational leaders” of any terrorist organization, the Obama administration used drone strikes to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, both American citizens.

So now we find ourselves at this strange, surreal juncture where clear-cut definitions of right and wrong and the rule of law have been upended by legal parsing, government corruption, corporate greed, partisan games, and politicians with questionable morals and little-to-no loyalty to the American people.

It’s a short skip and a jump from a scenario where the president authorizes drone strikes on American citizens abroad to one in which a high-level bureaucrat authorizes a drone strike on American citizens here in the United States. It’s only a matter of time. Obama has already opened the door to drones flying in American skies—an estimated 30,000 by 2015, and a $30 billion per year industry to boot.

Yet no matter how much legislation we pass to protect ourselves from these aerial threats being used against us domestically, either to monitor our activities or force us into compliance, as long as the president is allowed to unilaterally determine who is a threat and who deserves to die by way of a drone strike, we are all in danger.

This is surely the beginning of the end of the republic. Not only are we upending the rule of law, but killing people across the globe without accountability seriously undermines America’s long term relationships with other nations. The use of drones to kill American citizens demonstrates just how out of control the so-called “war on terror” has become. A war that by definition cannot be won has expanded to encompass the entire globe. This confirms the fears of those who have been watching as the American drone program has slowly expanded from targeting members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan to include any person the president cares to see eliminated, not to mention the countless civilians killed along the way.

Retired general Stanley McChrystal has said that drone strikes are “hated on a visceral level” and feed into a “perception of American arrogance.” By attacking small time jihadists, as well as innocent civilians, the American government further inflames populations where terrorist groups are embedded, exciting anti-American sentiment among those who may have previously been an asset to America’s relationship with Muslim countries. In fact, McChrystal and former CIA director Michael Hayden have both expressed concern that American drone strikes are “targeting low-level militants who do not pose a direct threat to the United States.”

For example, Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a Muslim cleric in Yemen gave a long sermon in August 2012 denouncing Al-Qaeda. A few days later, three members of Al-Qaeda showed up to his neighborhood, saying they wanted to talk with Jaber. Jaber agreed, bringing along his cousin Waleed Abdullah, a police officer, for protection. In the middle of the conversation, a hail of American missiles rained down upon the men, killing them all.

Incidents such as these are the exact reason that America cannot seem to bring an end to its myriad military commitments abroad.  By undermining our potential allies, we simply further endanger American lives. According to Naji al Zaydi, an opponent of Al-Qaeda and former governor of Marib province in Yemen, “some of these young guys getting killed have just been recruited and barely known what terrorism means.” In direct opposition to the stated goal of the “war on terror,” we are creating enemies abroad who will gladly look forward to the day when the United States falls in on itself, like the Roman Empire before it.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no exit from this situation. Too many high-level officials, both Democrats and Republicans, either don’t care, or actively champion the murder of American citizens and innocent civilians alike by the president. As journalist Amy Goodman put it, “the recent excesses of U.S. presidential power are not transient aberrations, but the creation of a frightening new normal, where drone strikes, warrantless surveillance, assassination and indefinite detention are conducted with arrogance and impunity, shielded by secrecy and beyond the reach of law.” — John W. Whitehead

Two interesting perspectives in the news today on the revelation about Obama’s justification for using drones to kill American citizens.

The first comes from Charles P. Pierce over at Esquire. He writes:

There are two stories in the mix that define the perilously strange (and perilously vast) boundaries that we have come to set for the powers of the president of the United States who, at the moment, is Barack Obama of Illinois, but who, one day, could be Marco Rubio of Florida, or Chris Christie of New Jersey, or some nameless child born over the weekend in San Antonio, or Denver, or on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota… So this is where we stand in 2013, in the second month of the second term of this administration — the president does not have the power to convince us fully to stop killing each other, but he has the full power to do it himself.

The second, “When liberals ignore injustice,” comes from Joan Walsh over at Salon.

Last year Brown University’s Michael Tesler released a fascinating study showing that Americans inclined to racially blinkered views wound up opposing policies they would otherwise support, once they learned those policies were endorsed by President Obama. Their prejudice extended to the breed of the president’s dog, Bo: They were much more likely to say they liked Portuguese water dogs when told Ted Kennedy owned one than when they learned Obama did.

But Tesler found that the Obama effect worked the opposite way, too: African-Americans and white liberals who supported Obama became more likely to support policies once they learned the president did.

More than once I’ve worried that might carry over to bad policies that Obama has flirted with embracing, that liberals have traditionally opposed: raising the age for Medicare and Social Security or cutting those programs’ benefits. Or hawkish national security policies that liberals shrieked about when carried out by President Bush, from rendition to warrantless spying. Or even worse, policies that Bush stopped short of, like targeted assassination of U.S. citizens loyal to al-Qaida (or “affiliates”) who were (broadly) deemed (likely) to threaten the U.S. with (possible) violence (some day)… I think people who care about justice have hearts and minds big enough to be concerned about all forms of injustice, and potential injustice. Late last year I admitted I looked away from some of the more disturbing national security policies of the Obama administration before the election because I knew President Romney would almost certainly pursue worse ones. But in the president’s last term, I think it’s incumbent on people who care about civil liberties to care about these policies. It would be a shame if Obama’s popularity made people who once cared about such issues care less.

Taken together, the two articles shed provide some insight into the dangerous powers being amassed by the Imperial President, a.k.a. the Executive Branch, regardless of which party is in office and with little opposition from the very groups and individuals who have historically stood against injustice, oppression and wrongdoing. — John W. Whitehead

The Obama administration’s unapologetic rationale for using drones to kill U.S. citizens sends a clear and urgent message about the need to limit the government’s use of these devices domestically. We cannot afford to be lulled into a sense of complacency by legislation placing temporary moratoriums on drones. As with other weapons of war which have become routine weapons of compliance domestically, such as tasers and sound cannons, once drones are unleashed on the American people, there will be no limiting their use by government agencies.

To this end, The Rutherford Institute has called on government officials at the local, state, and federal level to do their part to safeguard Americans against the use of drones by police. Rutherford Institute attorneys have drafted and made available to the public language that can be adopted at all levels of government in order to address concerns being raised about the threats posed by drones to citizens’ privacy.

As a resident of Charlottesville, Va., the head of a national civil liberties organization based in Virginia, and a citizen of the United States, I am very familiar with the challenges involved in balancing local priorities with national concerns. However, I do not believe that one precludes the other. Indeed, I have always subscribed to the idea that we must think nationally, but act locally. If our freedoms are to be protected, let alone restored, taking action at the local level must be the starting point.

Government representatives are not only charged with addressing our needs at the community level but they also have a duty to relay our concerns as residents and citizens to state and federal branches of government when appropriate. Just as federal and state policies trickle down and impact us at the local level, we must ensure that our concerns and needs trickle up. Therefore, when either state or national governmental entities overstep constitutional bounds, it is imperative that our local government address these issues.

The concept of taking a stand at the local level in order to voice concerns about issues of national importance is as old as America itself. It was in the homes and town halls of the American colonies that concepts of liberty and freedom from British tyranny were first discussed, before any program of a national scale could be set in motion. The Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg was one such meeting spot, where men such as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson created the first Committee of Correspondence in Virginia, a local group concerned with the mounting oppression at the hands of the British experienced throughout the colonies. The establishment of Committees of Correspondence throughout the colonies eventually led to a Continental Congress, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted and America’s slow march toward freedom began.

Getting back to the Obama administration’s so-called “legal case” for carrying out drone strikes on American citizens, there is no legal case to be made for an act that is illegal, immoral and contrary to every fundamental and decent principle on which this nation was founded. Frankly, this is no different from the Bush administration’s legal justification of waterboarding as a legitimate torture technique and no less repugnant. Americans should be up in arms.

Entirely lacking in accountability and legal justification, Obama’s “legal” rationale for using drones to kill American citizens takes to new heights Richard Nixon’s brazen claim that “if the president does it, it’s not illegal.”

Entirely lacking in accountability and legal justification, Obama’s “legal” rationale for using drones to kill American citizens takes to new heights Richard Nixon’s brazen claim that “if the president does it, it’s not illegal.” No matter what is said to the contrary, the Constitution does not in any way provide for the president to engage in such acts, even under the auspices of his role as Commander in Chief.  In fact, the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of due process, intended to protect citizens in the event that the government attempts to overreach its authority, assure every American citizen that before the government can imprison them or put them to death, they have a right to hear the charges being levied against them, review the evidence, and be treated to a fair and impartial trial by a judge or jury.

Obama, by his actions, is circumventing the Constitution, especially as it pertains to the rights of American citizens. Indeed, in a decision he claims was “an easy one,” Obama has already killed two American citizens in this fashion: Anwar al-Awlaki, an American cleric living in Yemen who served as a propagandist for Al-Qaeda, and his 16-year-old son.

That Obama, schooled in the law and having himself taught constitutional law, can so glibly disregard the Constitution’s requirement of due process for American citizens is particularly troubling. Therein lies the danger of Obama, one overlooked by his supporters in their zeal to retain the White House and greatly underestimated by his opponents: he has become a law unto himself. Should we fail to recognize and rectify the danger in allowing a single individual to declare himself the exception to the rule of law and assume the role of judge, jury, and executioner, we will have no one else to blame when we plunge once and for all into the abyss that is tyranny. — John W. Whitehead