Treason is a crime

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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31 Responses

  1. Plinko says:

    “If our covert-ops guys light up some al-Qaeda redoubt in the mountains and al-Awlaki bites the dust, no tears from me. But those are very different things from having the U.S. government draw up a list of its own citizens to be targeted for assassination. ”
    This is the part of this whole thing that I don’t get and I have yet to hear anyone even try to give an explanation for. Why not just assert that suspected traitors in enemy lands might become casualties of war? We don’t seem to shed too many tears if a bomb intended for an al-Qaeda stronghold accidentally also kills a few innocent civillians, right?

    I’m really, really baffled by this.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Plinko says:

      @Plinko, because the government was asserting the right to kill anybody for reasons it didn’t have to give.

      If it said “we have determined, via grand jury, that So-and-so is a traitor and is now a target for assassination/capture”, I’m pretty sure that nobody would be particularly upset (apart from the Free Mumia folks who can be expected to show up with signs no matter what).

      This is not the power the government asserted it had.Report

      • Matt in reply to Jaybird says:


        Your scenario would be less bad, but precedent is the most important element of any trial, and this action would set a bad one. Trying people for capital crimes in absentia and then sentencing them to death is really problematic. Even if such a scenario happened to, out of dumb luck, produce justice one time, it’s almost certain that such a thing wouldn’t happen again.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Matt says:

          @Matt, well, keep in mind that the Constitution (Article 3, Section 3) specifically talks about Treason.

          Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court. The Congress shall have power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.

          While it’s kind of a precedent being set, it’s kind of not. If we do something like provide evidence (say, a video of the guy explaining the importance of making war against the US and HERE’S HOW!), then that’s sufficient according to the Constitution, no?

          It’s a double buttload better than “trust us”, anyway.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Plinko says:


      Why not just assert that suspected traitors in enemy lands might become casualties of war?

      Because no one with an IQ above room temperature should need the reminder.Report

      • Plinko in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, But that doesn’t answer the question, which is why don’t they just do that instead of asserting the right to kill anyone they want for secret reasons without oversight?
        Why not just kill him via bomb or raid if they can find him?Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Plinko says:


          I’ve turned this over in my mind again and again. Two theories:

          1) Intimidation. They want to scare terrorists and would-be terrorists. It’s a way of saying “we really mean it.”

          2) Intimidated. That is, the administration is intimidated. They don’t want to seem soft on terror, so they’re running to the right of the Republicans. JFK did likewise with the communist threat, and, while it was in some ways more understandable — and while the stakes were clearly higher — the domestic political payoff was much the same.Report

    • MFarmer in reply to Plinko says:

      It’s a matter of principle — not hard to understand.Report

  2. Steven Donegal says:

    I’m glad to find a line (other than tax increases) that conservatives won’t cross. My guess is that it’s a line that only exists for Democratic presidents.Report

    • Katherine in reply to Steven Donegal says:

      I actually don’t think the latter part of that is true. In the last couple years I’ve discovered a significant number of decent, thoughtful conservatives who are very different from the typical Republican-party-line types that we generally see in the media and in government, and genuinely care about things like ethics and civil liberties. Although I don’t know anything about Kevin Williamson specifically.Report

  3. Robert Cheeks says:

    No president has the right to order the murder of an American citizen. American citizen’s, by defininition, have the ‘right’ to due process period.
    E.D. must be chuming the water?Report

  4. Scott says:


    Maybe you can get your facts right. Barry didn’t solely order al-Awlaki targeting. It also involved the consent of the National Security Council (NSC). Not to mention that al-Awlaki is targeted for quite a bit more than propaganda. Getting your facts right is really what is awesome.Report

    • Matt in reply to Scott says:


      I haven’t heard any charge for anything else other than propaganda, and even if there were such a charge, it would be just that: a charge, until it was proven in court.Report

    • Plinko in reply to Scott says:

      @Scott, Since pretty much everyone on the National Security Council is a member of the executive branch, that’s about the weakest-tea defense of this idea I can imagine.Report

      • Scott in reply to Plinko says:


        Does that change the the fact E.D. still has his facts wrong?


        If the only thing you’ve heard of is the propaganda then I guess you and E.D. are getting your info from the same place.Report

        • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Scott says:


          Scott, you got your facts wrong. Erik wrote:

          “[A]l-Awlaki mostly is accused of being a propagandist.”

          This much is entirely true, and entirely consistent with what you’ve asserted above. Also, the propaganda claims are nearly the only ones I have any confidence in at the moment, because I can pass judgment on what he has said much more easily than I can pass judgment on what he has done. The latter duty I’d prefer to leave to a court of law, if it so happens that he’s captured alive.

          As to the NSC being involved in the order, consider me unimpressed. The executive authority is acting unchecked here and unreviewed, regardless of how many executive agents are in on the act. The whole point of judicial review is to bring in a different branch of government whose agents are not under the authority of the president. That simply hasn’t happened here.

          Think about your argument for a moment, I urge you: It would exonerate every despotism in history. Even Stalin had his Politburo.Report

          • Scott in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

            @Jason Kuznicki,

            Be unimpressed all you want. E.D. made a statement that was factually incorrect. If you want to argue that it is a bad policy fine, but that is a separate argument than whether or not E.D.’s statement was correct.

            Your claim about the propaganda is wrong as well. Awlaki was linked to Hassan the Fort Hood shooter and the Nigerian underwear bomber said that he met with Awlaki. No to mention that he reportedly met with two of the 9/11 attackers. So he’s done a bit more than propaganda.Report

            • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Scott says:


              He’s “linked” by evidence that has not been presented in court. Until then, I’m going to doubt it. That’s how our system is supposed to work, and I’m just conservative enough to want to keep it that way.

              As to a false statement on E.D.’s part, I’m still not sure I see one.Report

    • MFarmer in reply to Scott says:

      So, those under the President agree –mazing.Report

  5. Rufus F. says:

    As for the “unintended consequences”, I usually define them like this- ask a Republican if they’d be comfortable with President Hillary having these powers; then ask a Democrat if they’d be comfortable with President Palin having them.Report

    • Katherine in reply to Rufus F. says:

      I’d be deeply uncomfortable with President Palin even existing, and I don’t even live in the States.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Katherine says:

        @Katherine, are there any powers you would not want President Palin to have?

        Is there a Presidency weak enough to make you say that, okay, you no longer mind the idea of a President Palin?

        I submit that *THAT* presidency is the one we ought have for *ALL* our presidents.Report

  6. MFarmer says:

    And, let’s keep the blame squarely where it belongs — Obama — regardless of how many on the left and right agree with his actions. It dilutes the problem when people try to even out the blame as if they all have the power to take these actions, and Obama is merely one among many — he took a frigging oath, and we handed him important responsibilities as Commander in Chief.Report

    • North in reply to MFarmer says:

      @MFarmer, Obama and Bush, but otherwise agreed.Report

      • MFarmer in reply to North says:

        Right now, the blame is squarely on Obama — Bush has been deservedly blamed and executive power increases go even further back. Right now, 2010, under the Obama administration, this situation, this violation, this continuation of run-away State power, is all Obama — not McCarthy, not Bush, not the Tea Party, not the neo-cons, not Cheney — Obama and the silent Democrats in control of congress.Report

        • ThatPirateGuy in reply to MFarmer says:

          I confess total ignorance on the question: any non-silent republican office holders? Link would be awesome, name will do just fine. (Ron Paul is only half credit.)Report

          • MFarmer in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

            My subject is the blame due Obama and the Democrats. Any silence on the part of Republicans, whom I do not defend, does not ameliorate the egregious violations of Obama and the Democrats. If the Republicans killed small spotted puppies, would it make it okay for Obama and the Democrats to do it, too? Obama and the Democrats are in power — they and you ought to be ashamed. Good try, though. I never get tired of that tactic.Report

  7. Boonton says:

    It’s also worth noting that al-Awlaki mostly is accused of being a propagandist — giving sermons, writing articles, and otherwise behaving as “the bin Laden of the Internet,” as he is known. You want to try him for treason or inciting terrorist violence, I’m content to see him hang.

    I have said before the problem with this issue is that people get all caught up on the judicial track for deal with Awlaki that they often neglect the fact that the military track is just as real and has validity. The key word here is propagandist, which illustrates the difference IMO.

    In short, gov’t has two tracks each with its own advantages and disadvantages:

    Judicial – is for addressing crimes, getting ‘revenge’ and justice. This attaches to the person and is long term. Just as Roman Polanski can’t visit the US because of criminal charges over 30 yrs old, Awlaki is liable for criminal charges long after the ‘war on terror’ is over (if ever).

    Military – Is for addressing the situation here and now, on the ground. It ‘forgets’ as soon as a threat or obstacle to a military goal is gone. From the military POV, the enemy battleship is a threat now. When its sunk it no longer is a threat and therefore of no interest. If a potato pealer on that ship happened to be a US citizen it is of no interest to the ‘military track’. However should he survive the sinking he may be of interest to the judicial track and charged with treason.

    If, though, you’re going to analyze sinking the battleship as some type of ‘extrajudicial execution’ you’re just going to end up confused.

    From a judicial track a propagandist may be protected by freedom of speech and press. Treason might be a viable case against him but its not guaranteed. The only reason you can consider it is that he is techincally a US citizen although since he wasn’t raised in the US and only has citizenship because he was here briefly as a baby the defense could argue that he effectively opted to waive his citizenship and since he is not a US citizen the gov’t has no valid expectation of loyality from him.

    From a military track, though, an active and effective propaganda outlet is a perfectly valid military target. Why would dropping a drone guided bomb on his house be any different than, say, bombing Nazi Germany’s Ministry of Propaganda thereby killing humble office workers and secretaries (some of whom might techincally be US citizens)?

    The counter is that there’s no judicial review, no grand jury, no opportunity for Awalaki to argue that he shouldn’t be targetted. But what about every other military target in this war and just about all previous ones? There never has been such an appeal process in the military. The only process the military has is official rules of engagement and possible criminal sanctions for soldiers who act outside those rules….but there its the military that brings the charges against their own.Report

    • Plinko in reply to Boonton says:

      @Boonton, The problem is that as far as I last heard, we’re fairly certain dude lives in Yemen, where we are not currently at war. So the ‘military’ option is somewhat less simple than you’re making it out to be.
      I know I kind of mussed this up in my initial comment, but it’s probable that dropping a big bomb on whatever house we expect he’s sitting in or even sending in commandos to ‘attempt to apprehend’ him could be a bit more problematic than if the location were Iraq or Afghanistan (or Pakistan, even).Report