Not Everyone Thinks Killing Anwar al-Awlaki Was the Right Thing to Do

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The targeted killing this morning of radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, now known to be the result of a CIA drone strike in Yemen, was hailed immediately by a senior Obama administration official as "a great day for America." But some civil liberties defenders are questioning our government's use of assassination without due process, reigniting arguments made by the New York Times, Newsweek , and even Ron Paul, that the murder of Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, may actually do more harm than good.

Awlaki, whose Internet sermons have been cited as inspiration by domestic terrorists like the Fort Hood shooter and the would-be bombers of Times Square and Northwest Airlines Flight 253, is thought to have graduated from a propagandist to an operational leader for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the affiliate of the terror group in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. But those claims were not yet proven in court when the U.S. approved killing him last year, nor have they been backed up legally in the eighteen months since. The president's word simply made it so.

As the New York Times reported, upon the Obama administration's authorization to kill Awlaki in April of 2010, "It is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be approved for targeted killing." Under the last administration, according to one legal official for George W. Bush, no Americans were approved for a targeted killing. At the time of the order, Newsweek argued against killing Awlaki, citing speculative evidence:

Unfortunately, the administration's argument is based more on frustration and assumption than real strategy. Killing Awlaki will do little to disrupt Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Inside that organization, he is a nobody—at best, a midlevel functionary in a local branch. There are dozens of men who could do more harm to the United States, and killing Awlaki would only embolden them and aid in recruitment. For an organization as resilient and adaptive as AQAP, his death would be a minor irritant, not a debilitating blow. The futility of such a strike should give Obama pause before he greenlights the assassination of a fellow citizen.

A Times op-ed a few months later made a similar case, calling Awlaki "a false target," and merely a "midlevel religious functionary," who was "not even particular good at what he does," while stressing his American citizenship. "He is far from the terrorist kingpin that the West has made him out to be," the column argued.

Today, Salon journalist and former constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald argues that the killing of Awlaki has "transformed someone who was, at best, a marginal figure into a martyr," and that the United States has blatantly ignored the Fifth Amendment ("No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law"). An identical argument was made last year on the other end of the political spectrum by Kevin D. Williamson at the National Review, who wrote that while "it is legitimate to target the intellectual infrastructure of al-Qaeda, even if that means killing people who have not engaged in any violent act," Awlaki's American citizenship was cause for concern. Ron Paul, on the campaign trail today, "warned the American people not to casually accept such violence against U.S. citizens, even those with strong ties to terrorism."

A combination of the legal defense and the strategic questions raised by Newsweek and the Times were exactly the concerns then-CIA director Leon Panetta was hoping to address last year when he told ABC, in general but definitive language, "Awlaki is a terrorist, and yes, he's a U.S. citizen, but he is first and foremost a terrorist and we're going to treat him like a terrorist. We don't have an assassination list, but I can tell you this, we have a terrorist list and he's on it."

Whether or not Awlaki's rhetoric called for evil acts against the United States is not up for debate; as such, the killing is largely being celebrated today. But those making the case against the attack on the grounds of what it means for America — at the risk of being called terrorist sympathizers — are at least worth listening to. It's not a political issue, but it is one with long-term legal consequences. As Williamson wrote in the National Review, "the prospect of putting American citizens on a government hit list should give us pause as conservatives: not for what this administration might do with such power, but for what an administration 50 years down the road might do with it."

The due-process-free assassination of U.S. citizens is now reality [Salon]
Ron Paul: US-Born Al-Qaida Cleric 'Assassinated' [NYT]
An Act of Futility [Newsweek]
U.S. Approves Targeted Killing of American Cleric [NYT]
Re: Assassinating Awlaki [National Journal]