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Col. Lawrence Wilkerson: Obama, Panetta and Holder undermine basic constitutional rights by justifying killing American citizens without judicial process and bypassing Congress in declaring war

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

On March 5 in Chicago, Attorney General Eric Holder made his speech. Amongst other things, he said the United States government has a right to targeted killing of people abroad who may endanger the United States and its national security, and that includes U.S. citizens.

Now joining us to talk about Eric Holder’s statement is Lawrence Wilkerson. Larry is a former chief of staff for Colin Powell, and he also teaches at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Thanks very much for joining us, Larry.


JAY: So what do you make of Mr. Holder’s statement?

WILKERSON: Well, despite the things that I know about human history, and our own history in particular, I didn’t think I’d live to hear an attorney general of the United States make such remarks. To declare, as I understood him to do (and I’m no lawyer), that due process in essence does not include judicial process, that is to say, Article Three courts or whatever—it could be a star chamber, it could be, indeed, a subcommittee of the national security staff that decides who will die and recommends to the president, and then the president makes the decision that, yes, that person will die, and that person can be a U.S. citizen, and that’s the end of it—is very disturbing.

JAY: It’s like out of an episode of 24. Jack picks up the phone and calls the president, and the president says, yes, go ahead, essentially, go ahead and kill the person. The thing is, in the TV show 24, it wasn’t only U.S. citizens or people abroad; it included people in the United States. If you extend Eric Holder’s logic, why wouldn’t it include even U.S. citizens on U.S. soil?

WILKERSON: I see no reason why it shouldn’t, given his logic. I had a conversation earlier this week with a British colleague who is somewhat alarmed by the fact that it looks as if Britain may have been giving actionable intelligence to our drone operators, who were killing people across international boundaries in Pakistan. They’re very concerned about that, and I would expect there may be a parliamentary-initiated investigation into Britain’s complicity here, in what is in effect an act against international law as it currently stands. This is—these kinds of activities, in my view, are very dangerous to our democracy, to our values, and ultimately to the soundness and the health of our Republic.

JAY: Now, in defense someone might say of the Obama administration is they’re at least being transparent about something that actually has been going on anyway, and maybe for decades. Is there any truth to that?

WILKERSON: I don’t think so. I don’t think presidents have been killing U.S. citizens with impunity for decades based on any trumped up interpretation of the Constitution or the law. Has it happened? I dare say it probably has from time to time. I can’t put my finger on the details of any time, though.

Being transparent about what is in [essence] extremely dangerous to our republic has its advantages only if the people of that republic—who, as Benjamin Franklin warned us, must keep it, if it is to exist and continue—only if those people react on that transparency. And frankly, I don’t see a whole lot of people reacting to it. Nor do I see the people’s representatives, except a very few select number of them, reacting to it. And I don’t expect their reaction—that is, the Congress’s reaction, amongst a small group that is appalled as I am at these sort of proceedings—I don’t see them coming to fruition, because, as I said, I don’t see the majority of the American people being energized over this, being concerned about it. Instead what I see is people who say things like one of my Republican colleagues did recently, a wealthy person, an educated person: I’m not doing any of these things; I don’t have to fear it; I don’t have to fear it; they’re not coming after me. That’s a very dangerous complacency and apathy.

JAY: So along with extending or somewhat putting into legal perspective the right of a president to order someone killed without judicial process, there’s another, you could say, extension of presidential powers that took place recently. Defense Secretary Panetta says that the administration does not really seem to need congressional approval to go to war. Now, the right wing was attacking his position that all they needed was international approval, for example, from the United Nations. And while, you know, I’ll ask you about that, I mean, doesn’t the United States—shouldn’t it require United Nations approval to go to war? On the other hand, I don’t see how that’s contradictory with also having congressional approval. What do you make of Panetta’s statement?

WILKERSON: I think it’s all cut from the same cloth, Paul. I think we’re watching our democracy disappear before our very eyes. We certainly are watching our Constitution trampled on. The Constitution, in Article One, is very clear who has the war power, and it is the Congress of the United States. And the Congress has been pusillanimous, it has been without intestinal fortitude over the last half-century or so, since 1945, and it has increasingly balked at doing anything that would require it to stand on its own hind legs and be identified. But that notwithstanding, just because of the cowardice of the Congress is no reason to abandon the Constitution. The more the war power is consolidated in the executive branch, the more, as Madison, Hamilton, and a host of other founders warned, we approach tyranny.

JAY: Now, you said in a recent Vanity Fair interview with you that you would probably vote for Obama this time. But you’ve also said that President Obama perhaps has been worse on these issues of civil liberties and extension of powers than even President Bush was. So how do you go from one to actually voting for Obama?

WILKERSON: I refuse not to vote. I just—I can’t bring myself to not vote. And I cannot even begin to compare the cast of characters in my party with the man in the White House. The difference is so stark, so fundamental, that there’s no way—right now, anyway, as I conceive any of those candidates, from Santorum to Romney—that I could cast a vote for them. So if I refuse not to vote, then I’ve got to vote for President Obama.

Now, that puts it in rather dire context. It’s not that dire. I think the president has done much to reestablish America’s reputation in the world. I think he’s done a lot to end some practices that clearly were tyrannical and clearly were against our value set, clearly damaging to our reputation, which is our real power in the world, and clearly damaging to the very fabric of our democracy. So he’s done some positive things, too. And I have to suspect that one of the reasons we’re getting what we’re getting from Eric Holder is the same reason we got what we were getting from Gonzalez and Mukasey before him, and that is that they’re giving the Oval Office very bad advice.

JAY: But President Obama is a constitutional lawyer. He’s no fool. So if—he knows what to make of this advice and he knows at least as much as we do, if not more, about these things. So it’s not like he’s just taking bad advice.

WILKERSON: I’m not sure that’s true. I don’t buy this argument that he’s a constitutional scholar. He may be, in the vein of being educated in it at Harvard and elsewhere, but that does not mean he was educated in the Constitution and the history thereof. Look at Justice Scalia, for example. Justice Scalia, in my mind, has absolutely no idea about what the Constitution is, was, or could be—his expression, for example, that the Constitution is not a pact for suicide. The Constitution is damn well a pact for suicide if you go down certain roads that the Constitution in its ambiguity authorizes. Scalia travels on one of those roads.

So you can say a man’s a constitutional scholar, a woman’s constitutional scholar. That does not mean that they understand the history of Magna Carta forward, that they understand the history expressed so eloquently in both the Federalist and the anti-Federalist papers, and all the people whom those very wise persons called upon for reference and for substantiation, ranging over almost a millennium of human history and human deliberation on these subjects. To say that someone who’s been to Harvard knows all that history and understands it is, I think, to go beyond the pale. I certainly don’t.

But I do understand the fundamental aspect of power, because I’ve been up close and personal with the execution and use, abuse, and management of that power. And the more power you have, the more you will abuse it. That is a fundamental principle. That is a fundamental reality of life. The more power you accumulate, the more you will abuse it. There is no exception in human history to that principle.

JAY: So the counterargument I guess you would get from the Obama administration is that they need these tools to defend Americans, that there’s real threats out there. If they can’t assassinate someone who’s an imminent threat, as they say, and if they can’t essentially go to war when they need to, they can’t defend America. That would be their argument.

WILKERSON: And, of course, that’s all poppycock. That’s the argument of king, queen, and president in every era of human history where power has been accumulated and abused, and ultimately abused to the maximum extent, that the people’s rights, the people’s obligations disappear. National security is the argument everyone goes to, whether he be monarch or president or prime minister. National security is the ultimate argument that overwhelms courts, overwhelms the people, overwhelms the people’s representatives, and ultimately brings tyranny.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Larry.


JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.