September 30, 2011
The Guardian (UK)

Anwar al-Awlaki's Extrajudicial Murder

The law on the use of lethal force by executive order is specific. This assassination broke it -- that creates a terrifying precedent

by Michael Ratner

Is this the world we want? Where the president of the United States can place an American citizen, or anyone else for that matter, living outside a war zone on a targeted assassination list, and then have him murdered by drone strike.

This was the very result we at the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU feared when we brought a case in US federal court on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki's father, hoping to prevent this targeted killing. We lost the case on procedural grounds, but the judge considered the implications of the practice as raising "serious questions", asking:

"Can the executive order the assassination of a US citizen without first affording him any form of judicial process whatsoever, based on the mere assertion that he is a dangerous member of a terrorist organisation?"

Yes, Anwar al-Awlaki was a radical Muslim cleric. Yes, his language and speeches were incendiary. He may even have engaged in plots against the United States - but we do not know that because he was never indicted for a crime.

This profile should not have made him a target for a killing without due process and without any effort to capture, arrest and try him. The US government knew his location for purposes of a drone strike, so why was no effort made to arrest him in Yemen, a country that apparently was allied in the US efforts to track him down?

There are - or were - laws about the circumstances in which deadly force can be used, including against those who are bent on causing harm to the United States. Outside of a war zone, as Awlaki was, lethal force can only be employed in the narrowest and most extraordinary circumstances: when there is a concrete, specific and imminent threat of an attack; and even then, deadly force must be a last resort.

The claim, after the fact, by President Obama that Awlaki "operationally directed efforts" to attack the United States was never presented to a court before he was placed on the "kill" list and is untested. Even if President Obama's claim has some validity, unless Awlaki's alleged terrorists actions were imminent and unless deadly force employed as a last resort, this killing constitutes murder.

We know the government makes mistakes, lots of them, in giving people a "terrorist" label. Hundreds of men were wrongfully detained at Guantanamo. Should this same government, or any government, be allowed to order people's killing without due process?

The dire implications of this killing should not be lost on any of us. There appears to be no limit to the president's power to kill anywhere in the world, even if it involves killing a citizen of his own country. Today, it's in Yemen; tomorrow, it could be in the UK or even in the United States.


"Interview: Anwar al-Awlaki,", February 7, 2010

Ralph Nader, "As the Drone Flies: War By 'Lethal Autonomy'," CounterPunch, September 27, 2011

Jason Ditz, "CIA Assassinates Two American Citizens in Yemen: Obama Lauds Killings as Proof of America's Reach,", September 30, 2011

Peter Finn, "Secret U.S. memo sanctioned killing of Aulaqi,", September 30, 2011

Steve Watson, "No More Pentagon Dinners: Al Qaeda Leader Killed . . . Again,", September 30, 2011

Yassin Musharbash, "The Death of Jihad's English-Language Mouthpiece,", September 30, 2011

Steve Peoples, "Ron Paul: US-born al-Qaida cleric 'assassinated'," Associated Press, September 30, 2011

Dan Hirschhorn"Obama impeachment a possibility, says Ron Paul,", October 3, 2011

Paul Craig Roberts, "Assassinating Awlaki: The Day America Died,", October 4, 2011

[Last week, Americans saw a curious sight for a free nation: Their president ordered the killing of two U.S. citizens without a trial or even a formal charge . . . and the public applauded. . . .

Before the killing, Obama successfully fought efforts by al-Awlaki's family members to have a court review the legality for the planned assassination of their kin. Due to reported prior associations of the U.S. government with al-Awlaki, it was a hearing that the intelligence agencies likely did not want to occur. At the time, the Justice Department argued that if al-Awlaki wanted judicial review, he should file with the clerk's office himself - despite an order for him to be shot on sight. The Obama administration succeeded in arguing that the planned killing of a citizen on this hit list was a "political question," not a legal question.--Jonathan Turley, "Column: Why we should wince over al-Awlaki's death,", October 4, 2011]

[There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House's National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.--Mark Hosenball"Secret panel can put Americans on 'kill list',", October 5, 2011]

[Khan's family asserted that Samir Khan "never broke any law and was never implicated in any crime." Echoing some civil libertarians, who have questioned the decision to kill Khan and al-Awlaki - both U.S. citizens - the Khan family also raised these issues: "Was this style of execution the only solution? Why couldn't there have been a capture and trial? Where is the justice? As we mourn our son, we must ask these questions."--Tim Funk, "Family of al Qaida blogger Samir Khan 'appalled' by U.S. actions,", October 6, 2011]

Charlie Savage, "Secret U.S. Memo Made Legal Case to Kill a Citizen,", October 8, 2011

Richard Cohen, "Who signed Anwar al-Awlaki's death warrant?,", October 10, 2011

Ron Paul, "A Dangerous Precedent,", October 11, 2011

Alastair Beach, "Family hits out at US in fury at fate of Awlaki's slain son," Independent, October 18, 2011

Glenn Greenwald, "The killing of Awlaki's 16-year-old son,", October 20, 2011

[Meanwhile, the same White House that insists in court that it cannot confirm the existence of the CIA's drone program spent this week anonymously boasting to US news outlets of the president's latest drone kill in Pakistan. And government emails ordered disclosed by a federal court last month revealed that at the same time as they were refusing to disclose information about the Bin Laden raid on the grounds that it is classified, the Obama administration was secretly meeting with, and shuffling sensitive information to, Hollywood filmmakers, who are producing what is certain to be a stirring and reverent film about that raid, originally scheduled to be released just weeks before the November presidential election.--Glenn Greenwald, "How the Obama administration is making the US media its mouthpiece,", June 8, 2012]

Joby Warrick, "Danish former jihadist claims to have aided U.S. attack on al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki,", October 10, 2012

[Thus, if New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki had been shooting at American troops at the time the government took aim at him, naturally, the troops can shoot back. But when he merely encourages others to shoot, his behavior is protected by the natural law, the First Amendment and numerous federal statutes. As well, he was 10,000 miles from the U.S., never known to have engaged in violent acts, and having a private conversation at a roadside cafe in a desert when he was killed. No law or legal principle justifies the U.S. government killing him then and there; in fact, numerous laws prohibit it.--Andrew P. Napolitano, "Obama's Secret Court for Killing,", February 14, 2013]

[In other words, the US government was trying to murder one of its own citizens as punishment for his political and religious views that were critical of the government's policies, and not because of any actual crimes or warfare.--Glenn Greenwald, "The NYT and Obama officials collaborate to prosecute Awlaki after he's executed,", March 11, 2013]

[Anwar Al-Awlaki may have been recruited as a government informant a decade ago.--Josh Gerstein, "Feds cagey on early Anwar Al-Awlaki ties,", October 4, 2013

Pete Yost, "Judge dismisses lawsuit over Yemen drone strikes on 3 U.S. citizens,", April 4, 2014

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