Awlaki's Death Raises a Lot of Questions About Killing U.S. Citizens

For instance: did the drone strike violate the constitutional guarantee to due process?

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Anwar al Awlaki's YouTube sermons for al Qaeda inspired Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan and underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and some U.S. officials are pretty happy he's dead. But the way he was killed raises uncomfortable questions. Awlaki, a native of New Mexico, was killed by an airstrike in Yemen -- mostly by an American drone, Wired's Spencer Ackerman writes. And President Obama personally ordered the strike, the BBC reports. That means an American citizen was killed without due process -- a public airing of the evidence against him.

"It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing, officials said," The New York Times' Scott Shane reports. "A former senior legal official in the administration of George W. Bush said he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president." But the Obama administration hinted such an action was possible, when Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence, told Congress in February, "If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that."

At Lawfare, Robert Chesney writes that there are two key questions to think about in the wake of Awlaki's death: 1) Whether he was persued for exercising his First Amendment rights and 2) Whether he was punished in violation of his Fifth Amendment rights. Reactions to the news depend on weighing those questions against the national security victory in killing a man the U.S. says was an operational leader for al Qaeda, not just a guy who made YouTubes. Ackerman notes that the U.S. has never presented evidence that Awlaki had such a role.

It's awesome:

  • The Washington Times' Eli Lake tweets that he predicted Obama would be hawkish in July 2008 -- or, in Lake's words, "a bad ass in the [Global War on Terror]." In that story, for The New Republic, Lake writes that despite his opponents' attempt to portray then-Sen. Obama as weak on national defense,
"If you read the fine print of Obama's policy papers and talk with his advisers and examine their careers, you'll find something surprising about how an Obama administration would view this dark side of the war on terrorism. Far from eschewing alliances with unsavory proxies, these ties are essential to Obama's plans for destroying Al Qaeda. As he has put it, the United States must develop the 'partnerships we need to take out the terrorists.'"
Partnerships like, one presumes, working with the Yemeni government, which has been cracking down on its citizens protesting for democratic reforms this year.
  • Commentary's Max Boot notes that David Petraeus, the former Army general who retired to run the CIA after running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, "was responsible for the deaths of vast numbers of Islamist militants," despite all the talk about winning over local populations with counterinsurgency tactics. And now he's racked up another kill with a CIA drone. Further, "It is very much to President Obama's credit that he authorized the dispatch, without any legal proceedings, of the American-born Awlaki—something that the ACLU no doubt deplores and that a fainter-hearted president would have shied away from." But, he warns, this does not mean that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is vanquished.
  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry cheered the announcement, saying, "This man that they removed from doing any further harm, Al Awlaki, was the next generation of Al Qaeda, who they spread their message of violence using the internet in particular. His death will be quite a serious setback for that organization." So did New York Rep. Peter King, who released a statement saying, "The killing of al-Awlaki is a tremendous tribute to President Obama and the men and women of our intelligence community."
It's troubling:
  • Salon's Glenn Greenwald writes, "What's most striking about this is not that the U.S. Government has seized and exercised exactly the power the Fifth Amendment was designed to bar ('No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law'), and did so in a way that almost certainly violates core First Amendment protections (questions that will now never be decided in a court of law)." For the liberals cheering on the Democratic president, Greenwald asks, "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?"
  • Ron Paul agrees. Awlaki's death sets a "sad" precendent, he says. “He was born here... He is an American citizen. He was never tried or charged with any crime. Nobody knows if he killed anyone. ... If the American people accept this blindly and casually -  have a precedent of an American president assanating people who he thinks are bad. I think it that’s sad."
  • Mother Jones' Adam Serwer says the last time an American citizen was killed in a strike against al Qaeda, the government had the decency to at least pretend it was an accident. "The first was Kamal Derwish, who was born in Buffalo, New York, and killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2002. Back then, US officials felt compelled to assure reporters that he was not the actual target and that they weren't aware he was in the car that was destroyed until after the strike. Perhaps they were worried about the legal implications of asserting that a US president possesses the ultimate power of life or death over an American citizen."
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