Assassinated on Obama's orders

Nicole Colson reports on the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki--a U.S. citizen never formally accused of a crime--in an American drone aircraft attack in Yemen.

Anwar al-AwlakiAnwar al-Awlaki

HOW MANY extrajudicial assassinations of American citizens does Barack Obama need to carry out before his Nobel Peace Prize is revoked?

The president notched up two on September 30 with a CIA-directed drone aircraft strike targeting Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical cleric who the Obama administration is now calling the "external operations chief" for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Awlaki was killed, as was another American citizen, Samir Khan, who the government believes was an editor of al-Qaeda's online magazine Inspire. Two other people with them also reportedly died.

Not only was Awlaki never convicted of a crime, he was never even charged with one. Even so, the Obama administration was trying to kill the U.S. citizen for well over a year before it finally succeeded. According to press reports, Obama's Justice Department had drafted a secret memo laying out the legal justification for killing Awlaki without ever bringing him to trial.

This assassination isn't only a continuation of the "war on terror" policies of the Bush administration that undermined civil liberties--it's a massive escalation of them. As the Washington Post reported, senior officials within the Obama administration crafted and adopted the assassination policy:

The document [authorizing Awlaki's assassination] was produced following a review of the legal issues raised by striking a U.S. citizen and involved senior lawyers from across the administration. There was no dissent about the legality of killing Awlaki, the officials said.

In a statement quoted by the Post, an Obama administration official justified Awlaki's death:

As a general matter, it would be entirely lawful for the United States to target high-level leaders of enemy forces, regardless of their nationality, who are plotting to kill Americans, both under the authority provided by Congress in its use of military force in the armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces as well as established international law that recognizes our right of self-defense.

As for Samir Khan, the Post wrote, "An administration official said the CIA did not know Khan was with Awlaki, but they also considered Khan a belligerent whose presence near the target would not have stopped the attack."

There's one problem, of course--as U.S. citizens, both Awlaki and Khan were entitled to due process under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution--the right to a trial. As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald wrote:

No effort was made to indict [Awlaki] for any crimes (despite a report last October that the Obama administration was "considering" indicting him). Despite substantial doubt among Yemen experts about whether he even had any operational role in al-Qaeda, no evidence (as opposed to unverified government accusations) was presented of his guilt.

When Awlaki's father sought a court order barring Obama from killing his son, the [Department of Justice] argued, among other things, that such decisions were "state secrets," and thus beyond the scrutiny of the courts. He was simply ordered killed by the president: his judge, jury and executioner.

The CIA drone strike that killed Awlaki was almost certainly carried out with the approval--if not outright aid--of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has spent most of this year murdering his own citizens as they protest his corrupt rule. Saleh had returned to Yemen just a week earlier, after having fled the country following popular unrest and an assassination attempt.

The day after Awlaki's death, an anonymous Yemeni official told the New York Times that Awlaki's whereabouts were provided to the U.S. based on information from a "recently captured al-Qaeda operative." That information was likely the result of torture, which Yemeni authorities are known to employ.

The fact that Awlaki's assassination came so soon after Saleh's return is probably not a coincidence. As the New York Times reported, "The timing of the air strikes fueled speculation that Mr. Saleh, who has frequently portrayed himself as an essential bulwark against al-Qaeda, had handed over Mr. Awlaki to the Americans in order to reduce American pressure on him to leave."

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WITH FEW exceptions, the liberal voices that loudly protested Bush administration policies undermining civil liberties and constitutional rights have been virtually silent over the Obama administration's extrajudicial assassinations.

But conservatives couldn't wait to applaud. Appearing on CNN's State of the Union, former Vice President Dick Cheney delightedly pointed out that with the assassination of Awlaki, the Obama administration had fully embraced the Bush administration's post-September 11 policies. "They have clearly moved in the direction of taking robust action when they feel it is justified. In this case, it was," he said.

Republican presidential frontrunners Rick Perry and Mitt Romney praised the murder of Awlaki, both calling it a "victory."

The day after Awlaki's assassination, the New York Times chose to run an op-ed by Jack Goldsmith, a former assistant attorney general in the Bush administration. Goldsmith praised Obama, saying that his administration "has done an admirable job" of balancing the potential for "executive overreach" against "security imperatives." According to Goldsmith, "[T]here is an extraordinary process inside the government to ensure that this standard is met."

But the Obama administration has never detailed what that "extraordinary process" is, or why it should supercede the right of a U.S. citizen to have a trial before essentially being executed by the government.

Goldsmith's argument seems to be that since the Obama administration had decided Awlaki was a terrorist who needed to be killed, the public should willingly a brazen violation of civil liberties on its word alone.

But if there's one thing that's certain, it's that governments lie--especially during wartime. As Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights asked in an opinion article following the assassination: "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."

Obama, by his administration's actions, has further strengthened the rationale for future presidential administrations to claim that they also have the power to execute whomever they want, whenever and wherever.