Skip to main content

The Citizen

Killing our own: Assassination reveals the growing power of the security state

By Adrian Arroyo, Opinions Columnist, MPP’13

It’s a particularly American irony that, awash in tricorn hats and “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, we’ve placed the men who fought the American Revolution ahead of their reasons for fighting it. The killing of Anwar al-Aulaqi, a citizen of the United States with operational ties to Al-Qaeda, is a case in point. The United States executed a citizen using military force, without indicting him for any crime, and did so in a foreign country where we are not at war.

Ten years after it began, the War on Terror continues to shape our beliefs about the boundaries of state power. In this case, the thrill of serving a man his just deserts obscures the real conflict between the arbitrary exercise of power embodied by “cause of death: hellfire missiles” and constitutional protections like due process of law.

Constitutional limits, born out of the framers’ skepticism about concentrations of power, have made an uneasy peace with the demands of the modern world. Today we have a fourth branch of government—the administrative branch—that was not anticipated in the Constitution. There, the limits are hazier, accumulations of power harder to dissolve, and lines of accountability more difficult to draw. With that in mind, the growth of the national security state over the last ten years should give us pause.

The death of al-Aulaqi is part and parcel of that growth, documented by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin in the Washington Post investigative series, “Top Secret America.” Three thousand organizations spread over ten thousand locations have lent the intelligence gathering process a powerful bureaucratic inertia, which, combined with secret budgets and Congress’s reluctance to make use of its oversight powers, should make us all a little nervous.

From an electoral perspective, it’s hard to argue with the logic of supporting the security industry. Legislators can burnish their national security bona fides by granting intelligence budget requests and luring contractors to their state or district. As these organizations become entrenched, they demand ever-larger budget grants, and politicians focused on re-election have little incentive to pick a fight. Because the budgets are not disclosed to the public, there is little political risk to the candidate.

And the successes of the intelligence community have been undeniable. The deaths of bin Laden and al-Aulaqi have degraded the operational capabilities of a dangerous terrorist organization. What should concern us is the day when Al Qaida is no longer a significant threat to the United States and the bureaucracy built to combat it lingers on. It’s unreasonable to think the intelligence apparatus of the United States will voluntarily downsize itself, and the lack of public budgeting makes it almost impossible to identify waste and zombie projects. In the unlikely event that intelligence budgets were made public, the pitched battles required to end Cold War era defense projects like the F-22 Raptor should temper our expectations for political courage in this arena.

Writing in Federalist 26, Alexander Hamilton argues that the sort of conspiracy necessary for the national security apparatus of the United States to subvert the liberty of its citizens would inevitably run afoul of the state legislatures and the integrity of national officeholders. But a conspiracy is hardly necessary; complacency is enough.

Adrian Arroyo is an MPP1 and hunts the most dangerous game.