Yemen’s state news agency and American officials confirmed Friday that Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric, had been killed in an American missile strike. The killing of Awlaki, who had been a charismatic and Internet-savvy mouthpiece for Jihadists around the world, was seen as the biggest U.S. counter-terrorism success since the death of Osama bin Laden in May. “This is further proof that Al Qaeda and its affiliates will have no safe haven anywhere in the world,” President Obama said in remarks Friday.
But the killing of Awlaki, an American citizen born in New Mexico, raises grave questions about the use of lethal military force by American officials. By all accounts, Awlaki was the first American citizen deliberately targeted for killing by U.S. military officials, who accused the radical, Yemen-based cleric of playing an important operational role in several attempted terrorist attacks on the U.S., and claimed broad powers to hunt Awlaki down and kill him. Civil liberties organizations, such as the ACLU, have derided the policy as an aggressive overreach of Constitutional authority.
“We continue to believe that the targeted killing program violates both U.S. and international law,” Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the ACLU, said in an interview Friday morning with Need to Know. “As we’ve seen today, it’s a program under which U.S. citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without judicial process and on the basis of standards and evidence that are secret.”
The ACLU filed a lawsuit in July on behalf of Awlaki’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki, challenging the government’s authority to target American citizens for killing outside clearly defined battle zones, and without an imminent threat to the lives of American citizens. The ACLU accused the government of, among other things, disregarding the Fifth Amendment, which states that no American shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The suit was dismissed on procedural grounds, and the organization has yet to decide whether to file a new court challenge.
“The government’s power to use lethal force against its own citizens should be strictly limited to circumstances in which the threat of life is concrete and specific, and also imminent,” Jaffer told Need to Know. “It’s a profound mistake to invest any president with the unreviewable power to kill any American citizen who he deems to present a threat to the country.”
Jaffer said the Obama administration had claimed broad war powers far beyond any granted to an American president in U.S. history, including in times of war. In the past, the authority to kill American citizens has been restricted to fixed geographical boundaries of conflict and to periods in which the U.S. was at war with a clearly defined enemy.
“The authority the administration is claiming is not an authority that is limited to the battlefield. In their view, the battlefield is anywhere, therefore terrorists can be found anywhere,” Jaffer said. “That’s dangerous.”
Jaffer also sharply criticized the administration for failing to live up to the expectations many civil liberties organizations had when Obama ran for president in 2008. Obama, Jaffer said, has continued many of the aggressive counter-terrorism policies embraced by the administration of George W. Bush, including the use of surveillance and other provisions of the “Patriot Act.”
“It has certainly been surprising and disappointing to us that this administration has continued so many of the last administration’s most radical national security policies, including polices that many members of this administration criticized when they were in office,” Jaffer said.
Jaffer also expressed frustration that many Americans who would otherwise be uncomfortable with such an aggressive use of military power in the hands of Bush, for example, are assuaged by the fact that the power is somehow “safe in the hands of President Obama.” The danger in that complacency, Jaffer said, is that, with the precedent set by President Obama, the power to target Americans for killing will likely be used — and possibly abused — by future presidents.
“The administration is claiming war power all over the world, and the war power doesn’t distinguish between Americans and anyone else,” Jaffer said. “The fact that President Obama used the power today set the precedent that other presidents will invoke in the future.”