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.

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.