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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

If it is true, as the writer Samuel Johnson once said, that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” then the dictionary must be the first.

Consider how readily our leaders, in justifying what cannot be justified, parse definitions down to microns of fineness or invent obfuscating euphemisms to hide behind. As in Bill Clinton’s memorable attempt to deny he had misled the American people about his relationship with a White House intern. “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” he said. Then, there was the Bush administration’s attempt to make waterboarding, sleep deprivation, clothes deprivation, stress positions and other filthy instruments of torture sound as antiseptic as an operating room: “enhanced interrogation,” they called it.

To those acts of violence against clarity, we can add a new one. A Justice Department memo recently obtained by NBC News authorizes drone strikes to kill U.S. citizens who join al Qaeda, saying this is legal when three conditions are met. The third is that the operation be conducted “consistent with applicable law of war principles.” The second is that capture is infeasible. But it is the first that puts ice down your back. It requires that “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”

If you don’t see why that should shiver your spine, perhaps you use a different dictionary than the government. Merriam-Webster for instance, defines “imminent” as an adjective meaning, “ready to take place; especially: hanging threateningly over one’s head.”

But in its memo, which surfaces as the Senate ponders confirming John Brennan as director of the CIA, the Justice Department says its definition of “imminent threat” doesn’t require “clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

In other words, “imminent” doesn’t mean “imminent.” And if U.S. intelligence — which we all know is infallible, right? — determines you to be a member of al Qaeda, that determination, absent any evidence of a planned attack, gives the government the legal pretext to vaporize you. Worse, the government contends this may be done without oversight, judicial or otherwise. The president becomes, quite literally, your judge, jury and executioner.

That’s what happened to Anwar al-Awlaki, the Muslim cleric born in New Mexico, who was dispatched to meet Allah in 2011 after a career of planning and inciting terrorist attacks in the United States, including the failed bombing of Times Square in 2010.

No one weeps for this man. Yet it is possible to be glad the planet is rid of him and yet deeply concerned about the means used to achieve that goal. Not for his sake, or for the sake of any other plotter against this country but, rather, for the sake of the country itself.

Barack Obama came to office decrying just this sort of Bush-league overreach, the end-justifies-the-means rationalizations of an administration that reserved the right to imprison without trial and issued memos contemplating the legality of scalding a prisoner with water or putting his eyes out. Of course, Michael Corleone was critical of the Don, too, until he assumed that power.

So it was welcome to hear the president pledge greater transparency in last week’s State of the Union address. And administration officials say they have been pondering ways to create independent oversight of the counterterrorism program.

But it is time to stop pledging and pondering and just do. The idea of a secret killing program, answerable to no one, is jarringly inconsonant with who and what we are supposed to be. One fears that, in the name of expedience, we will become what we abhor. Indeed, the danger is imminent.

Whatever that means.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

Photo credit: Corporal Steve Follows RAF

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  • 1.Why did Trump choose to hide certain specific files and not others at Mar-a-Lago? What were the criteria that Trump used to keep some files concealed and not others? Who selected those files? Did Trump consult or direct anyone in his selection of secret files? Trump was notorious for being too impatient to read his briefing papers, even after they had been drastically shortened and simplified. Is there the slightest evidence that he spirited these papers away so that he could consult or study them? Who besides Trump knew of the presence of the files he had concealed at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 2. Mar-a-Lago has an infamous reputation for being open to penetration even by foreign spies. In 2019, the FBI arrested a Chinese woman who had entered the property with electronic devices. She was convicted of trespassing, lying to the Secret Service, and sentenced and served eight-months in a federal prison, before being deported to China. Have other individuals with possible links to foreign intelligence operations been present at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 3. Did members of Trump's Secret Service detail have knowledge of his secret storage of the files at Mar-a-Lago? What was the relationship of the Secret Service detail to the FBI? Did the Secret Service, or any agent, disclose information about the files to the FBI?
  • 4. Trump's designated representatives to the National Archives are Kash Patel and John Solomon, co-conspirators in the investigations into Russian interference in the presidential election of 2016, the Ukraine missiles-for-political dirt scandal that led to the first impeachment in 2019, and the coup of 2020. Neither has any professional background in handling archival materials. Patel, a die-hard Trump loyalist whose last job in the administration was as chief of staff to the Acting Secretary of Defense, was supposedly involved in Trump’s “declassification” of some files. Patel has stated, “Trump declassified whole sets of materials in anticipation of leaving government that he thought the American public should have the right to read themselves."
  • The White House counsel failed to generate the paperwork to change the classification markings, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t declassified.” If Pat Cipollone, the White House legal counsel, did not “generate the paperwork,” was he or anyone on his staff aware at all of the declassifications? The White House Staff Secretary Derek Lyons resigned his post in December 2020. Did his successor, who held the position for a month, while Trump was consumed with plotting his coup, ever review the material found in Trump’s concealed files for declassification? Or did Patel review the material? Can Patel name any individual who properly reviewed the supposed declassification?
  • 5. Why did Trump keep his pardon of Roger Stone among his secret files? Was it somehow to maintain leverage over Stone? What would that leverage be? Would it involve Stone's role as a conduit with the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers during the coup? Or is there another pardon in Trump’s files for Stone, a secret pardon for his activities in the January 6th insurrection? Because of the sweeping nature of the pardon clause, pardons can remain undisclosed (until needed). Pardons are self-executing, require no justification and are not subject to court review beyond the fact of their timely execution. In other words, a court may verify the pardon was valid in time but has no power to review appropriateness. A pardon could even be oral but would need to be verifiable by a witness. Do the files contain secret pardons for Trump himself, members of his family, members of the Congress, and other co-conspirators?
  • 6.Was the FBI warrant obtained to block the imminent circulation or sale of information in the files to foreign powers? Does the affidavit of the informant at Mar-a-Lago, which has not been released, provide information about Trump’s monetization that required urgency in executing the warrant? Did Trump monetize information in any of the files? How? With whom? Any foreign power or entity? Was the Saudi payment from its sovereign wealth fund for the LIV Golf Tournament at Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club for a service that Trump rendered, an exchange of anything of value or information that was in the files? If it involved information in the files was it about nuclear programs? Was it about the nuclear program of Israel? How much exactly was the Saudi payment for the golf tournament? The Saudi sovereign wealth fund gave Jared Kushner and former Trump Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin $2 billion for their startup hedge fund, Affinity Partners. Do the Saudis regard that investment as partial payment for Trump’s transfer of nuclear information? Were Kushner or Mnuchin aware of the secret files at Mar-a-Lago?
  • 7.Did Trump destroy any of the files? If so, when? Did those files contain incriminating information? Did he destroy any files after he received the June subpoena?
  • 8.Were any of the secrets of our allies compromised? Has the U.S. government provided an inventory of breaches or potential breaches to our allies?
  • 9.Does the resort maintain a copying machine near the classified documents that Trump hid? Were any of the documents copied or scanned? Are Trump’s documents at Mar-a-Lago originals or copies? Were any copies shown or given to anyone?
  • 10.Trump’s lawyer Christina Bobb has revealed that a video surveillance system covers the places where Trump hid the files at Mar-a-Lago, and that the system is connected to a system at his other residences at the Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey and Trump Tower in New York City. According to Bobb, Trump and members of his family observed the FBI search and seizure of his files at Mar-a-Lago, “actually able to see the whole thing” through their surveillance system. Who has that surveillance system recorded entering the rooms where the files were kept?

Kevin Bacon, right, in "The Following"

The aftermath of the August 8, 2022 search of the Mar-a-Lago club, former President Donald Trump’s Florida home, isn’t the first showdown between the FBI and a cult leader.

The Following, a 2013 Fox Pictures series, played out in similar fashion. Three seasons was enough for the producers and it’s been nine years since our introduction to Joe Carroll, English professor-novelist-serial killer, so there’s a spoiler risk -- but not enough to prevent the comparison.

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