Somewhere deep in the National Security Council, a death panel is operating without known legal basis, without recognized rules, without clear oversight and without public record or knowledge of its actions.

According to Reuters news agency, a committee composed of midlevelNational Security Council staffers is in charge of compiling the “death list” of terrorists to be targeted by the CIA for killing. Their recommendations are sent to a principals committee for approval. The president then has the option of objecting to the names on the list, but if he remains silent, he gives his consent. This system reportedly was intended to “protect” President Obama but instead has created a growing political predicament.

The political question of whether the United States can wage a clandestine war against terrorists through the use of deadly force seems to have been settled. The type of CIA covert actions that shocked the conscience of the nation when they were revealed in the 1970s are now taken for granted, even lauded. It is a reflection of the dangerous times in which we live. But the question of whether these same deadly techniques may be used against American citizens has never even been debated. The matter has become acute since the CIA killed al Qaedaleader and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last week.

The same president who sent the moral high horse galloping on questions of torturing terrorist suspects and closing the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, cannot now hide behind blank walls and cipher locks while secretive functionaries compile lists condemning Americans to death.

The American people should know by what right, under what law and by whose hand their fellow citizens are being marked for termination.

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