By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Steve Kroft’s stunning omission

Anwar al-Awlaki

I wasn’t expecting much in the way of tough questioning last night when I sat down to watch President Obama’s interview with “60 Minutes.” The idea was to revel in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Steve Kroft’s questions — all of which were a variation on “Mr. President, why are you so wonderful?” — were no surprise.

Even so, I was startled when, toward the end of the interview, Kroft asked Obama, “Is this the first time that you’ve ever ordered someone killed?” The president blandly answered that every time he orders a military action, he does so with the understand that someone will be killed.

But what was missing from Kroft’s question and Obama’s answer was the name of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American whom the president ordered killed last year. Al-Awlaki survived a U.S. drone attack on his headquarters in Yemen on Saturday, after the “60 Minutes” interview was recorded. But the targeting of al-Awlaki was hardly a secret — it was even the subject of an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by his father. If Kroft didn’t know that, then he had no business sitting down with the president. If he did, well, why didn’t he say something?

The targeting of al-Awlaki, an American-born radical Islamist, was an extraordinary measure. As Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU, which helped with the lawsuit, has observed:

[T]he United States is not at war in Yemen, and the government doesn’t have a blank check to kill terrorism suspects wherever they are in the world. Among the arguments we’ll be making is that, outside actual war zones, the authority to use lethal force is narrowly circumscribed, and preserving the rule of law depends on keeping this authority narrow.

Should the United States be trying to kill al-Awlaki? According to this extensively footnoted Wikipedia article, al-Awlaki’s fiery rhetoric was the inspiration for a number of terrorist attacks. In addition, some say he has been involved in planning acts of terrorism and had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. He may, in fact, be a legitimate target.

What troubles me is that it is not widely known that our government has targeted an American-born citizen for death. It’s something that ought to be debated openly, not relegated to an occasional mention in the media. So it’s an opportunity lost when a journalist like Kroft asks a question that is either ignorant or disingenuous, and then allows the president to dissemble without so much as a follow-up.

Did Kroft genuinely not know better, or had he and the folks at CBS News already decided not to press Obama? Either way, it was shocking omission. We could have learned something if only Kroft had bothered to do his job.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. BP Myers

    I too thought it a stupid question, but for different reasons. Only a few months into his term, the Maersk Alabama was seized by Somali pirates, and the president himself gave the shoot to kill order. If I remember right, three Somali pirates ended up dead. I don’t recall a lot of hand-wringing about that, certainly (and hilariously) far less than there appears to be about Osama.

    Folks have short memories, I guess.

  2. L.K. Collins

    To assume, Dan, that it is not widely known that the US was attempting to kill al-Awlaki is to suggest that the drone attacks on Yemeni militant sites were merely target practice.

    Also, given Croft’s servings of tough puff balls, is there any serious question of how far in the pocket of the political leadership that Croft and CBS really are?

    Is this the way that the press holds our political leadeers accountable?

    Are your musings the best you can do as a media critic to address the passes being granted by people who claim to be the watchdogs?

  3. Neil Sagan

    This is a legitimate inquiry about the law that governs presidential authority to execute enemies. Thanks for raising it.

  4. Matt Kelly

    >>The government doesn’t have a blank check to kill terrorism suspects wherever they are in the world.

    It does with me, and with most other Americans, I suspect.

  5. tobe berkovitz

    Oh wait. 60 Minutes was a news interview? I thought I was watching an infomercial for Re-Elect President Obama in 2012.
    Silly me.

  6. L.K. Collins

    So, what’s this controversy about political contributions to campaigns by corporations?

  7. Mike Rice

    Meanwhile, the federal government is expected to hit the debt ceiling in about a week. Uh-oh!

  8. L.K. Collins

    …And unemployment inched up to 9%.

  9. Rick Peterson

    My favorite CBS story is how poor CEO Les Moonves saw his pay increase 33% to a mere $57.7 million last year, (for cramming his trophy wife Julie Chen into every available moment of CBS national airtime). Tobe was right. Murrow is spinning in his grave.

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