Officials in the Obama administration have confirmed, three months after it was first reported, that the White House has authorized the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to target American citizen and alleged terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki for killing. In acknowledging the decision, the administration has explained its rationale for the first time. But the official explanation for why Awlaki merits targeted killing without judicial review, an extraordinary and unprecedented expansion of the U.S. war on terror, paints an unclear picture. Killing an American citizen without trial or a judge's approval is, to put it lightly, a big deal. Does Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born cleric who now dispatches fiery anti-American sermons from Yemen and has been loosely tied to the Fort Hood and Flight 253 incidents, really meet the threshold?
When the decision to target Awlaki was first reported, the most logical rationale seemed to be that his high-profile presence on jihadist web sites allowed him to recruit for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al-Qaeda offshoot in Yemen. Since then, the slow trickle of information about the U.S. case against Awlaki has not added much. Anonymous U.S. officials tell the New York Times that Awlaki is a "recruiter for the terrorist network." Any legal authority for targeting Awlaki requires that he pose an extreme and immediate threat to U.S. national security. Clearly, recruiting potential terrorists would be a serious crime. But does that make him a terrorist, let alone one meriting targeted killing? That's the case administration officials are making.