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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn
13 Jul 2012
The End of America's Armies

Retired Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, bounced out of his job for revels in Paris as witnessed by Rolling Stone, … Read More.

5 Jul 2012
Epitaph to a Dead Movement

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29 Jun 2012
The Affordable Care Act: Decision Effects

It's tempting to say the Affordable Care Act decision spells the end of the Romney candidacy. The Mormon … Read More.

Welcome to Our Banana Republic and Its Global Panopticon


The day I became a citizen of these United States, June 17, 2009, in the old Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland, I raised my right hand and swore that I "absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

To my immediate left in that vast and splendid deco theater was a Moroccan; to my right, a Salvadoran; and around us 956 others from 98 countries, each holding a small specimen of the flag that was about to become our standard. All of us had sworn earlier that day that since our final, successful interviews with immigration officials, we had not become prostitutes or members of the Communist Party.

The sovereignty I was abjuring was the Republic of Ireland, itself not so far from shifting its allegiance from the Irish Constitution to the dictates of European bankers. Since questions about the Bill of Rights were likely to come up in those final interviews, many people in the theater had a pretty clear notion that along with allegiance came certain important protections, such as guarantees of due process and the right to a public trial by jury. There's no doubt that for many, with vivid memories of summary seizure and arbitrary imprisonment in their biographies, these guarantees had great significance.

But as it turns out, it was all a fraud. The Uzbek down the row from me, who had fled Karimov's regime, probably had no need to anticipate being boiled alive — a specialite de la maison in Tashkent. But being roasted alive by a Hellfire missile, doomed by the executive order of President Obama, without due process in any court of law, for reasons of state forever secret, could theoretically lie in his future. If presidential death warrants beyond the reach of scrutiny and review by courts or juries are the mark of a banana republic, then we were all waving the flag of just such an entity.

On May 21, less than a month before that June morning in 2009, Obama had abandoned his commitments to restore the rule of law after the abuses of his predecessor. In a speech at the National Archives, he announced that he was reviving the military commission trial system, and he disclosed that his advisers had told him that some prisoners at Guant†namo might be too dangerous to release. Though there was insufficient evidence to build a case, they would be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

Then, in February 2010, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair blithely told a House committee that "being a U.S. citizen will not spare an American from getting assassinated by military or intelligence operatives overseas if the individual is working with terrorists and planning to attack fellow Americans." Blair added helpfully that if "we think direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that."

On Sept.

30, 2011, a CIA drone unit based in Yemen incinerated two U.S. citizens: Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric, and Samir Khan, associated with InSpire Magazine. With zero credible evidence, the administration is portraying al-Awlaki as a senior al-Qaida commander and Khan as a "belligerent." News reports present Khan as a sophisticated pamphleteer whose skills had supposedly rendered him the Tom Paine of Muslim extremism. Tremendous emphasis is placed on the murdered men's fluent command of English, a facility that seems to have sealed their death warrants.

The administration claims it canvassed legal opinion within the government but refuses to disclose what this opinion was. Except that the legal opinions they obtained supported the assassinations as legal — a claim parroted by the establishment press, along with opinions from rather carefully selected authorities. My favorite is from Carol Williams of The Los Angeles Times. She spared her readers the views of Ron Paul, a well-known member of Congress and presidential candidate who denounced the killings, preferring to cite an obviously unbiased authority, "'This attack appears to have met the criteria of proportionality, military necessity and the absence of alternatives to be in full accordance with a state's right to aggressive self-defense,' said Amos Guiora, a former Israel Defense Forces legal advisor involved in targeted killing decisions in the Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s."

Today, al-Qaida is a puny force whose prime function is to justify the war in Afghanistan, the overall "war on terror," and to boost Obama's re-election campaign. Whatever al-Awlaki may have done, aside from earn martyr status, is irrelevant to the basic issue, which is that he should not have been punished until convicted in a court of law.

There is no reason to suppose that Obama's successor will rescind the authority assumed by the former lecturer in constitutional law. Increases in executive power are rarely forfeited. We have thus embarked on a new era. After decades of passionately denying its forays into assassination, the CIA now preens over them. They have trumped the military by seizing the role of chief executioner with a rapidly expanding drone empire. The CIA is mostly tasked with killing foreigners but not shirking elimination of U.S. citizens.

For years, Jeremy Bentham tried to sell the British government on the idea of a Panopticon — a prison designed so that a single guard could monitor and control 1,000 convicts. We now have a global Panopticon, serviced by CIA spy planes, which can survey every square foot of Google Earth. Drones and pedestrian assassins enforce it, all acting at the behest of one man beyond the reach of constitutional restraint. We are back with the lettres de cachet, themselves the descendants of Roman imperial dictatorship: Rex solutus est a legibus, the king is released from the laws.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



15 Comments | Post Comment
If a kamikaze flies at you, you shoot it down Cockburn. If you have half a brain, that is. How in the world did we ever let a dope like you in, anyway?
Comment: #1
Posted by: Masako
Thu Oct 20, 2011 6:03 PM
You are absolutely correct. Notice that the first comment assumes the administration press release contains all we need to know about the guilt of the assassinated American citizens. The men killed may have been evil doers, but no court found them so. The US Constitution was gravely wounded that day and such "collateral damage" should outrage every patriot, both those naturalized and those born here.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Mark
Thu Oct 20, 2011 6:23 PM
Re: Mark. Your logic has a problem with temporality, not to mention reality. The kamikaze is flying at me, and I'm supposed to ask him to hold off until I go to court to get permission to shoot him down?
Comment: #3
Posted by: Masako
Thu Oct 20, 2011 7:12 PM
My problem with your answer was not the logic, if the kamikaze is attacking you, killing in self defense is clearly justified. My problem is with the premiss. The reported activities of these two Americans was clearly reprehensible, and might justify extreme measures, but they were not driving bomb laden vehicles toward the front gates of the US embassy. Their activities had been known for quite some time. Obama and congress could have constructed a constitutional framework to do what they say had to be done. My problem is that the executive branch played judge, jury, and executioner. There was NO judicial review of the decision to execute two American citizens. That is scarey stuff.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Mark
Thu Oct 20, 2011 7:40 PM
Long story short, Obama is a failed president in ALL respects and he has to go

Why can't the left put forth a genuine champion of the American family / worker??

RON PAUL, baby
Comment: #5
Posted by: Soothsayer
Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:50 AM
For the same reason the right can't. The president doesn't work for the American family and worker. The president, as well as the vast majority of congress, dances with them that brung him. Your man Ron Paul is as close as the GOP has come to nominating a sane person since Bob Dole. The evidence is that the press refuses to take him seriously, even when he came in second in the Iowa straw pole. Dennis Kucinich has the same problem with the press. Unfortunately, the GOP is going to nominate a candidate which will be much more of a corporate tool than Obama, as well as bowing to the social priorities of the extreme religious right.
Comment: #6
Posted by: Mark
Fri Oct 21, 2011 8:28 AM
Re: Mark. I do appreciate your point of view, and if I had not had so much experience with the utter incompetence and disconnectedness of the judicial branch, I would be tempted to adopt your point of view. But I do not see any value being added, for the most part, by those robed idiots.

Those two, along with many others, are the equivalent of a kamikaze. By the time the courts catch up, it will be far too late. The job of the courts is to get in the way, and they excel at that for the most part.

Yet, when the executive branch really has gone too far afield, they are MIA. Think Bush v. Gore, that excremental stain on the face of American jurisprudence. And there are many examples of the same phenomenon throughout American history.

The world is not the comfy place we would all like it to be so we can explain it nicely to our kids. And the courts will do nothing to protect your kids from it. They comprise yet another government institution happily propagating itself, overpaying its sedentary officers to perpetuate their superstitious incantations, producing lots of expensive words and precious little in the way of any real value.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Masako
Fri Oct 21, 2011 9:15 PM
While I appreciate your concerns with the competence of the judicial branch of our government, the alternative is to turn your back on 200 years of a system which has provided us with historically amazing strength and stability through a balance of power. To assume that things would be better if we just ignored the judicial branch of government when the executive declared it expedient to do so would be a fundamental re-writing of the American system of government. We would risk changing into a form of government where all would be good if, and only if, we could just get the right emperor to lead us, one who is fair and wise and incorruptible and all that. Jesus does not seem to be interested in the job, and I can't think of a single politician who is remotely able to meet the job requirements. I don't know about you, but I doubt our method of picking presidents is ever going to find one up to that task. I suggest we stick with the old tried and true balance of power approach.
How long have we know about these two? The available information suggests that they were primarily influential through their words and that they have been spewing their hate for some time. Kamikaze model seems a poor fit to their actions and, more importantly, to the immediacy of their threat. If Obama and congress had wanted to fashion a legal framework for this assassination, they had time. They just didn't want to.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Mark
Sat Oct 22, 2011 10:07 PM
Re: Mark. To find the analogy think about what kamikazes and modern-day terrorists have in common. 235 years is nothing, especially for a country born on third base thinking it hit a triple.

We were supposed to fight like gentlemen in World War II, too. But we didn't. That's the real world, a world in which Hitler lost the fight. There were many innocent victims as there always are in war.

Then there's Iraq, a country that was utterly ruined in service of some good old boys' personal vendetta. Go and criticize that (your blessed courts didn't, nor did our cheerleading fourth estate) and we can find common ground.

The two Obama got were not innocent victims, and whether they got due process or not is utterly irrelevant to anything real except for those who like to expel greenhouse gases chattering about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Comment: #9
Posted by: Masako
Sun Oct 23, 2011 9:59 AM
The question is not what terrorists in general have in common with kamikazes, but rather, what did these two in particular have in common with Kamikazes, and the answer seems to be, not much. Speech, however repugnant, is not driving the bomb to the gates of the embassy. There was time to deal with this matter effectively while keeping the president's pledge to uphold the constitution.
Even if we posit that the nation was founded on third base, it does not necessarily follow that the institutions of government and the constitution are not vital in keeping the nation moving toward home plate. There are many nations which have started on third base in terms of available natural and human resources and promptly headed for first base. I hold the constitution to be worth of vigorous defense. We ignore it at our peril.
I have no disagreement with you on the subject of our illegal war of choice in Iraq. And yes, war is always messy.
Comment: #10
Posted by: Mark
Mon Oct 24, 2011 5:53 PM
Re: Mark. I like you, whoever you are. It would be fun to go into more detail in a conversation. But I do think you have a false sense of security about the institutions our fledgline democracy has developed that supposedly create effective separation of powers and an ability to hold those who abuse their power accountable.

And I also reiterate my point that this particular incident is not worth shedding tears over. It's utterly small change, and sorry to say it, but that's what Cockburn specializes in these days. Please consider setting your sites on bigger issues if you want to save the world.

Frankly, I care much more about pets who are abandoned and euthenized because no one will take them. I would rather save an abandoned dog in Iraq than one of those two.
Comment: #11
Posted by: Masako
Mon Oct 24, 2011 8:10 PM
Re: Mark. I like you, whoever you are. It would be fun to go into more detail in a conversation. But I do think you have a false sense of security about the institutions our fledgline democracy has developed that supposedly create effective separation of powers and an ability to hold those who abuse their power accountable.

And I also reiterate my point that this particular incident is not worth shedding tears over. It's utterly small change, and sorry to say it, but that's what Cockburn specializes in these days. Please consider setting your sites on bigger issues if you want to save the world.

Frankly, I care much more about pets who are abandoned and euthenized because no one will take them. I would rather save an abandoned dog in Iraq than one of those two.
Comment: #12
Posted by: Masako
Mon Oct 24, 2011 8:12 PM
I shed no tears over the two terrorist mouthpieces killed, only for the collateral damage to the constitution. That, I believe is a big issue in this era of the imperial presidency.
Comment: #13
Posted by: Mark
Mon Oct 24, 2011 10:23 PM
Re: Mark
Re: Mark
When is someone going to acknowledge the local perspective of what a terrorist is?

To a Pakistan villager, his family killed by an errant drone strike, the USA is the terrorist.
The Iraqi from Fallujah who saw his friends and family obliterated by USA artillery, would agree.
To the Palestinian, trapped with his family in the open air prison of Gaza, Israel is the terrorist.
The Palestinian in the West Bank, seeing his family's olive groves bulldozed for settlement construction would agree.

Get it? It's all point of view

We need a label or tag to whack out some people without guilt, in the name of God and country, and democracy.
Moro, Viet Cong, Insurgent, Terrorist, Jerk-wad, you pick the tag you feel good with then missles away.
All the blow back we get is simply a reaction to our actions

Clearly the USA as invader is better at making enemies than friends, and now Africa.
Endless war for sure so plenty of more 'terrorists" in our future, sadly.
Who said "I love my country but fear my government"?

Ron Paul or we are toast
peace out
Comment: #14
Posted by: Soothsayer
Tue Oct 25, 2011 12:52 PM
Re: Mark: Then focus on Buckley v. Valeo and the flood of money into politics that has been unleashed ever since. Currently, there are five branches of govt right now: Executive, legislative, judicial, the "free" press, and, can you guess? The big holders of money.

Your judiciary is a false prophet. Look at its history throughout the course of its evolution in England. It has always been ruled by a culture of disconnected arrogance and abuse, mistakenly seen now as a bulwark against toxic concentration of government power.

Not that we don't need resolvers of cases and controversies, but the value they add is utterly misconceived and over-valued in their current incarnation, being bounced back and forth as they are like ping pong balls by the various bars that feed their culture.

Ultimately, they do nothing much more than employ law students who did good in school and couldn't do much else. They want to keep their sweet jobs and easy, aloof existence. At least in Europe they are required to have some technical knowledge about what they rule on.

They will do nothing to stop the penetration of corrosive money into every capillary of the political system and the media. They have no real power or incentive to do that.

Your worst enemy is trust misplaced. Nobody can do it to you like your own.
Comment: #15
Posted by: Masako
Tue Oct 25, 2011 7:29 PM
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