President Obama, Executioner-in-Chief

The federal government has been wrong about accused terrorists in the past. Assassinating Americans without due process is folly.

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Maybe President Obama is for death panels after all. 

In the words of the Associated Press, "Anwar al-Awlaki, and a second American, Samir Khan, were killed by a joint CIA-U.S. military air strike on their convoy in Yemen early Friday. Both men played key roles in inspiring attacks against the U.S., and their killings are a devastating double blow to al-Qaida's most dangerous franchise." Aside from the fact that they were killed, is that true? Let's just ignore Khan on the "what's one more dead body" theory that is apparently the convention guiding most commentary on the day's events. Do we know that al-Awlaki has played a "key role" in inspiring attacks against the United States, and that his death is a "devastating blow" to al-Qaida? My colleague Max Fisher makes a persuasive case, elsewhere on this site, that "though the Yemen-based branch of al-Qaeda has been tied to recent attempted terrorist attacks the U.S., those attacks have all failed. And even those failures might have had little to do with Awlaki, a man with no operational experience, battlefield experience, or skill-set known to extend beyond shouting into a webcam and posting to YouTube."

Lest readers think I am quibbling about the effectiveness of an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operative, rest assured that I'd have been perfectly happy to see him tried in absentia for treason, provided with legal counsel, convicted, and then subjected to the death penalty though a drone strike. My point comparing the certainty of Associated Press's language with the facts we're actually in a position to verify is that the media readily traffics in dubious assertions about the man. That is particularly troublesome in this case because al-Awlaki, denied due process by the Obama Administration, has effectively been charged, tried, and sentenced to death in the American press.

So far, the reaction from writers with a civil libertarian impulse has been to clarify the terrifying precedent that the Obama Administration has set. "Regardless of how any of us feels about war-making in general, there are very good reasons that national governments are more constrained in their ability to kill their own citizens than in their ability to kill foreigners," Kevin Drum writes, "constraints enshrined in both the explicit rules and longstanding traditions of due process. That bright line has grown a lot dimmer today." Said Glenn Greenwald, "For you good progressives out there justifying this, I would ask this: how would the power to assassinate U.S. citizens without due process look to you in the hands of, say, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann?"

What is important to add, now that the American government is assassinating citizens without trial or due process of any kind, is how frequently it wrongly asserts that someone is an enemy of the United States. Ponder the track record of the entity that is now judge, jury and executioner.

As far back as the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, a bungled FBI investigation and a news media indulging its worst impulses turned heroic security guard Richard Jewell into a prime suspect. During the espionage case against Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist found himself held in extremely harsh conditions, including a long stint in solitary confinement. As the judge overseeing his case would later say in a formal apology to the defendant, "During December 1999, the then-United States Attorney, who has since resigned, and his Assistants presented me, during the three-day hearing between Christmas and New Year's Day, with information that was so extreme it convinced me that releasing you, even under the most stringent of conditions, would be a danger to the safety of this nation." As it turned out, that information was inaccurate, as evidence uncovered later proved. And Lee ultimately won $1.6 million in a civil suit against the federal government and several news organizations complicit in its wrongful behavior.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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