Was the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki justified?

Anwar al-Awlaki

Before the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki slips off the media’s radar screen, I hope we insist on one important question being answered: What, precisely, did Awlaki do to warrant his being killed by American forces?

I am not particularly concerned with Awlaki’s U.S. citizenship. He left the United States and joined a terrorist organization, Al Qaeda, against which the United States essentially declared war in 2001. As Bob Woodward reported in the Washington Post 10 years ago:

Since the Ford administration, all presidents have signed an executive order banning the CIA or any other U.S. government agency from involvement in political assassination. Generally speaking, lawyers for the White House and the CIA have said that the ban does not apply to wartime when the military is striking the enemy’s command and control or leadership targets.

And as Scott Wilson wrote in the Post on Friday, “citizenship is not a factor in determining whether a person can be lawfully killed under the laws of war.”

But I think we ought to know whether Awlaki was merely a propagandist for terror or if, as U.S. officials contend, he was actually involved in planning and operations. If any evidence has been released, I haven’t seen it.

Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times on Friday that Awlaki “participated in plots to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and to bomb two cargo planes last year” and “was fighting alongside the enemy in the armed conflict with Al Qaeda.” If those statements are true, I think the White House owes it to us — and to the world — to release whatever proof it has gathered.

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18 thoughts on “Was the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki justified?

  1. Stephen Stein

    “If those statements are true, I think the White House owes it to us — and to the world — to release whatever proof it has gathered.”

    What if releasing the proof endangers people or other intelligence-gathering capabilities?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Stephen: Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? But surely the administration can release something. How about Awlaki’s email exchanges with the Fort Hood killer?

  2. Stephen Stein

    I think the standard procedure in cases like this is to have it reviewed by Congressional Intelligence committees. Don’t know if such reviews have been done, though.

  3. Jim Chiavelli

    I’m still not on board with the drone strike, though I read this
    http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2011/03/anwar_al_awlakis_ema.php
    which gives some greater sense that Awlaki took an operational role.

    Still – and dare I say it, under George Bush – we caught John Walker Lindh, under arms, in Afghanistan, and pressed federal charges. With Awlaki – dare I say it, under Barack Obama – we decided, without public charge or weighing of evidence that the guy should be turned into pink mist.

    And I do think it matters that he was a US citizen. I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but I am an American. It used to be that we believed in democracy-liberty-rights for everyone. Then, we’d prop up dictators who tormented their own, but still we kept our hands off our people. Now, if we really don’t like you – bam, we’re at war, sorry. At war. With an ideology, or a gang of criminals. In Yemen.

  4. George F. Snell III

    I have a real problem with the idea of declaring “war” on terror then using that as the pretext for assassinating people without a trial or any evidence being presented (I won’t go into the ethics of murder by drone).

    What’s next? Using drones to take out drug cartel members in Mexico because of the “war” on drugs? Or taking out wealthy Republican in congress for blocking funding in the “war” on poverty?

  5. Michael Pahre

    The Justice Department would’ve made it a lot easier to understand if they had pursued some kind of indictment first before Awlaki was declared fair game for killing.

  6. Dan Storms

    The only evidence I’ve seen presented that Awlaki had any operational involvement in AQAP comes from statements of our government, statements they refuse to back with evidence either in a court of law or even to a judge while seeking an indictment (and judges have been found that pass all security tests so intelligence sources and procedures can be kept secret). At this point in my life, I’ve been lied to so often by my government about security issues that, if the president or Leon Panetta or David Petraeus told me the sun came up in the east, I’d seek verification from 3 independent astronomers and a rooster. Jay Carney in his press briefer the other day condescendingly and (IMHO) arrogantly refused to even address the questions brought up by Jake Tapper about proof, as if to say that the president, based solely on his understanding of the intelligence fed to him, has the fundamental, unchallengable right to blow apart 2 citizens anywhere without regard to the 1st (part of the indictment of Awlaki seems to be that his speeches and videos recruiting for jihad are reason enough to kill him), 5th, and 6th Amendments. A nation of laws, not men?

  7. Mike Benedict

    @Jim and Dan: If you recall, we’ve been killing al-Qaida members by drone strikes in Yemen since 2002 (under, you guessed it, President Cheney). And if you read the article, the word “suspected terrorist” is prominently and frequently mentioned.

    http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2002-11-05/news/0211050099_1_qaida-yemen-uss-cole

    “Suspected.” That’s the operative term. Not “proven.” Seems to me that if evidence isn’t demanded for the killing on non US citizens, explaining why it is so important when a US citizen is targeted gets a little awkward — especially from the view of the rest of the world. For better or worse, this is an example of American hegemony that gets everyone else up in arms — sometimes literally.

  8. Matt Kelly

    Seems to me like we’re mostly arguing whether killing this guy was *legal*– which is different than whether killing him was justified.

    He was a menace to the safety and security of US citizens, and despite all the questions of law around our decision to kill him, I can’t really envision any scenario where our national interests are better served by letting him live. I suspect the vast majority of Americans feel the same way.

  9. L.K. Collins

    I am reminded of Frank Church’s Senate committee in the ’70′s, and the scolding given by the liberal establishment against the deliberate targeting of people for assassination by the CIA.

    Seems as though the one-size-fits all approach isn’t as expedient as once thought.

  10. Mike Benedict

    @LK: You’re the one who likes to put everyone in neat little opinion boxes, not us. To put it in terms you’d understand, the world’s kind of like a certain antiques store: a big messy place, with no organization and the occasional gem piled under lots of obsolete and useless crap.

  11. Jim Chiavelli

    Mr Benedict: Very well aware of what we’re doing over there. The Constitution doesn’t follow the flag, but I thought it covered Americans.

    Mr Kelly: No question we’re better off; I’ll go you one better and say under any cleared-hot scenario, any of us could have – I certainly would have – zipped the guy, no questions. But I can tick off a half-dozen kids in Boston who are a menace to the safety and security of US citizens, and I know BPD could list hundreds more – “suspected” drug dealers, gunmen, thugs … tell me when we can send the Reapers in, please.

    Or explain to me the distinction between killing someone who preached against the US government overseas, and advocated killing US citizens – or maybe even helped plan the killings – and someone who doesn’t preach, but actually does shoot US citizens, right here in the homeland. The former gets a drone; the latter gets an indictment.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Jim: I agree with you in part and disagree with you in part. I don’t think the Constitution follows the flag when we’re talking about an American citizen who has become an enemy combatant. The resolution regarding Al Qaeda approved by Congress right after 9/11 was the closest thing to a declaration of war we’ve had since World War II. Where I agree with you is we still haven’t seen any evidence that Awlaki was doing anything other than running his mouth.

  12. Dan Storms

    Matt,

    So that is the criterion by which we now judge the worth of committing murder without even the semblance of judicial review–”I can’t really envision any scenario where our national interests are better served by letting him live”. Frankly, I couldn’t care less if every American citizen agrees with that. Allowing the president to unilaterally target persons for death without deigning to offer any justification other than “I decided he was a terrorist” (never mind that there is no concrete definition of terrorist) seems to put us well on the path to tyranny. In fact, I think it is very much in the national interest to insist that matters of life and death (or even the late, lamented habeas corpus)are not subject to the monarch’s whim but in fact must meet some standards of evidence. And I fail to understand how anyone could think otherwise.

  13. L.K. Collins

    It’s your hypocrisy Mikey…own up to it.

    You going to tell us about your silver spoon again?

    I can get a nice set of Paul Revere’s if you’re interested …and can pay the freight.

  14. Matt Kelly

    I would agree that Congress should have passed a declaration of war against Al Qaeda, which to my thinking would allow the executive branch to kill someone who belongs to Al Qaeda– much the same way the Roosevelt didn’t need to engage in any process to deem someone a German or Japanese before he authorized the military to kill them; the authorization is implicit. But like I said, that’s a failure of the legal system. Even without it, we’re still in a state of war with Al Qaeda. That the group is comprised of people from multiple nationalities, including our own, is immaterial to the prime fact.

    Likewise, what’s the difference between shooting this clown and shooting a gang-banger in Dorchester? Al Qaeda is part of a coherent group, with a recognizable governance system, that has publicly professed its desire to attack the U.S. government and US citizens. Gangs don’t do that. They may have their own governing system, but they’re largely about making money and don’t have any particular opposition to our government or citizens; they just shoot you when you’re in the way. That’s a crime, but it’s not an act of war.

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