Guest columnist Ramsey Ramerman writes that the legal rules used to justify assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, believed to be a traitor who wanted to harm the United States, should be more transparent.
A SECRET panel that decides when a U.S. citizen can be assassinated? Government employees repeatedly stealing computers from a top-secret nuclear laboratory? What’s going on? You can’t be told because these are state secrets.
As the scandal in Bell, Calif., demonstrates, state public-records acts are often sufficient to uncover corruption in state and local governments. But when national security is involved, too often there is no transparency and we just have to trust that government will root out government corruption. Recent history shows that this is an inferior option to public scrutiny.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory exemplifies the problem. Everyone agrees that Los Alamos contains government secrets that must be kept from public exposure. Sometimes secrecy serves a direct public benefit for things like security and is necessary. But the scandals at the laboratory demonstrate that too much secrecy can be as big of a risk as complete transparency.
The first scandal broke in 2001, when a whistle-blower’s claims led to an FBI investigation that uncovered the theft of millions of dollars of computer equipment that may have contained confidential nuclear secrets, and widespread abuse of government credit cards. Any sunlight was only temporary and standard secrecy practices soon returned.
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Then in 2009, a second scandal broke at Los Alamos, involving the theft of computer equipment and possibly nuclear secrets. These repeat scandals demonstrate how the complete lack of public oversight can serve as fertile ground for abuse and corruption.
Like security at Los Alamos, the legal justification for the recent execution of a U.S. citizen without trial or any due process is also shrouded in secrecy. Everyone assumes the target, U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, was a traitor who wanted to harm the United States. But the Constitution guarantees U.S. citizens due process. Article 3, Section 3 of the Constitution is very specific: “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.”
We are told that a secret panel of top federal officials made the decision in secret deliberations that the Constitution does not apply to al-Awlaki. We are told there is also a confidential legal memorandum and secret rules that govern the process and justify the killing.
No power granted to the federal government should be more restrained than the power to take a U.S. citizen’s life. Even when secrecy is necessary, Los Alamos proves that too much secrecy can lead to abuse.
We cannot risk the abuse of the power over life and death. The legal details that justify the execution of that U.S. citizen must be transparent to prevent abuse. Even secrecy needs at least some transparency.
Ramsey Ramerman is a member of the state Sunshine Committee and a founder of the Washington Association of Public Records Officers.