OHIO — While it’s rare for a local television reporter to score a one-on-one interview with the president of the United States, the opportunity does arise in the heat of the campaign season. And a Cincinnati TV reporter this week took advantage of his few precious minutes with President Obama to tackle a legally confounding and politically contentious issue ignored by the lion’s share of the national media—the existence of a presidential “kill list” aimed at taking out terrorists.
Ben Swann, a political reporter for Fox 19, made his interview with Obama the centerpiece of a Tuesday “Reality Check” segment, which appeared online under the blunt title, “How does he justify having a kill list?” The segment centered on the practice of using drones to attack individual terrorists identified by the administration, including U.S. citizens who have been killed without due process. Here’s the video (unedited footage of the full seven-minute interview, which touches on some other national security topics, is here):
As a May article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane of The New York Times reported, the drone strategy has proved effective at killing individuals the U.S. targets. But the policies have also raised thorny legal questions about the constitutionality of presidential-ordered killings. Some observers, the Times noted, believe the drone strike approach is driven in part by a desire not to capture terrorism suspects, and then be confronted by the question of what to do with them.
This is not the sort of material that is often covered on local newscasts. But in his segment Swann dove straight into the material, noting the “enormous constitutional ramifications” related to the kill list and the targeting of American citizens in particular.
His first question for the president was this: “On that list have been U.S. citizens who have not been afforded a trial, including Anwar al-Awlaki. How do you or any president for that matter, regardless of party or person, utilize that power to assassinate a U.S. citizen?”
Obama responded evasively, telling Swann that the question was based on news reports “that have never been confirmed by me and I don’t talk about our national security decisions in that way.”
Back in the studio, Swann responded to that remark by pointing out that members of Obama’s administration had already leaked the information, presumably with his authorization. (The Times article, which has been at the center of a controversy over selective leaks, cites interviews with “three dozen of [Obama’s] current and former advisers.) Swann did something similar later in the segment: After Obama said that killing people who pose imminent threats to the U.S. will help bring troops in Afghanistan home, the reporter pointed out that many of the drone strikes have taken place far from that country, in Yemen.
Swann’s wrap-up, in which he asserts his own view on the constitutional questions:
The way the president played this issue with us is really quite telling. When questioned about the constitutionally of a president, any president, having the power to order the death of U.S. citizens, he claims he never said he has a kill list and can’t discuss it further. A constitutional lawyer turned president using the power that violates the most basic principal in the Bill of Rights, leaking his use of it when it is politically expedient, then claiming it can’t be discussed when it is not. And that is Reality Check.
(Obama, it should be noted, was more expansive in an interview the next day with CNN’s Jessica Yellin.)
Swann’s report generated a storm of links on Twitter, along with praise from The Huffington Post and civil libertarian journalists like The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald.
He also earned high marks from a pair of experts I spoke with on Thursday. Gregory Johnsen, a Near East Studies scholar at Princeton University whose book The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia will be released soon, called Swann’s interview unusual.
“In an election year dominated by the economy and typical political rhetoric that you hear from both parties, I was surprised to see the issue of drones brought up, especially since it is very popular with the American public,” Johnsen said. “This is an important issue that is largely overlooked, with the exception of only a few national media outlets.”
And Joshua Foust, a fellow with the nonpartisan think tank American Security Project who is leading a new study on the use of drones, said Swann highlighted the subject very capably.