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Editorial: Leon Panetta’s undergraduate speech poses questions

Charlie Guese

Leon Panetta served as Secretary of Defense when a U.S. citizen was killed by a drone attack and was denied due process. (Courtesy of AP, file).

Leon Panetta served as Secretary of Defense when a U.S. citizen was killed by a drone attack and was denied due process. (Courtesy of AP, file).

Originally published in The Collegian

Imagine the excitement of Saint Mary’s administrators at securing former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta to speak at the undergraduate commencement next month. Saint Mary’s should, in fact, see this as a coup, for they have now joined many other colleges and universities in seeking speakers with a big name and a high profile to give the one final lesson at commencement. Panetta is perhaps one of the biggest names to have delivered the commencement address in Moraga in recent history. With that said, as much of a success it is in getting a former Cabinet member to speak at commencement, the selection of Panetta raises some serious questions about what sort of message administrators think Panetta will give to graduating seniors.

The Saint Mary’s press release, which presents a kind, Botox-level puffed-up version of Panetta’s background, says that Panetta’s career “reflects a lifetime commitment to the highest ideals of the nation.” I suppose this might be true if the Obama administration’s comprehensive targeted killing drone policies, of which Panetta was an architect and defendant, are included in one’s definition of American ideals.

In September 2011, purported Islamist militant Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a CIA-led drone attack in northern Yemen. al-Awlaki had extremist views, andquestionable evidence suggested that al-Awlaki posed a threat to the United States, though he was a U.S. citizen who was denied due process and was not allowed to face any of the charges against him, partly because the Obama administration never filed charges or presented any formal evidence against him that he was a national threat.

Even worse is that al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Denver-born Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was also killed in a drone attack two weeks later. No evidence supports that al-Awlaki’s son had any ties to terrorism whatsoever, and anonymous senior Obama officials have been quoted as saying that Abdulrahman’s killing was a “mistake.” The Obama administration has never made any public comment about Abdulrahman’s killing, nor has Panetta. However, when asked by CNN’s Erin Burnett about the legal justification for killing Anwar al-Awklaki, Panetta gave an answer that would make Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld proud:

“This individual was clearly a terrorist. And yes, he was a citizen, but if you’re a terrorist, you’re a terrorist. And that means that we have the ability to go after those who would threaten to attack the United States and kill Americans. There’s no question that the authority and the ability to go after a terrorist is there,” Panetta said.

Throughout Panetta’s career at the CIA and Department of Defense, he has provided dubious legal justification for authorized executive killings in which President Obama is the judge, jury, and executioner of anyone who is labeled a “terrorist” by the U.S. government. In other words, a U.S. citizen has no constitutional rights once his or her government declares him or her a “terrorist”—whatever that may signify. Journalist Glenn Greenwald provides an analysis even sharper than I ever could:

“Here we have the U.S. Defense Secretary, life-long Democrat Leon Panetta, telling you as clearly as he can that this is exactly the operating premise of the administration in which he serves: once the President accuses you of being a Terrorist, a decision made in secret and with no checks or due process, we can do anything we want to you, including executing you wherever we find you.”

I should iterate that I firmly believe almost anyone has a right to speak on this campus. Many controversial speakers have spoken at Saint Mary’s, including Bill Ayers of Weather Underground fame (ironically an organization that has often been called a terrorist group), and on a different scale, after the Starting Six cancellation last year, this newspaper even raised the question of what precedent is set when individuals or groups are invited or uninvited to campus. With that said, I am curious to hear what sort of message Mr. Panetta will offer to the graduating class next month, as well as what sort of message Saint Mary’s hopes its students will get out of him. Panetta’s career has included a signature doctrine of draconian and authoritarian drone policies that prioritize killing targeted individuals and the innocent civilians around them over due justice. It seems to me that such policies are unharmonious with the Catholic mission of Saint Mary’s, which claims to place its priorities on human life and social justice. Does Saint Mary’s selection of Panetta mean that Panetta embodies the mission of Saint Mary’s and is a good selection for the final lesson to its students at commencement? Or is the selection of Panetta merely another way to promote the perpetually image-conscious College as being able to attract a high profile name for its commencement?