The New York Times is its normal, understated self, discussing brutality over afternoon tea, but this is no laughing matter.
The Obama administration’s decision to authorize the killing by the Central Intelligence Agency of a terrorism suspect who is an American citizen has set off a debate over the legal and political limits of drone missile strikes, a mainstay of the campaign against terrorism.
The notion that the government can, in effect, execute one of its own citizens far from a combat zone, with no judicial process and based on secret intelligence, makes some legal authorities deeply uneasy.
To eavesdrop on the terrorism suspect who was added to the target list, the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is hiding in Yemen, intelligence agencies would have to get a court warrant. But designating him for death, as C.I.A. officials did early this year with the National Security Council’s approval, required no judicial review.
“Congress has protected Awlaki’s cellphone calls,” said Vicki Divoll, a former C.I.A. lawyer who now teaches at the United States Naval Academy. “But it has not provided any protections for his life. That makes no sense.”
(click to continue reading U.S. Decision to Approve Killing of Cleric Causes Unease – NYTimes.com.)
But this is really about the power of the federal government to kill its own citizen without the messiness of a democratic society, and courts of law, and so on. Let it sink in for a second, the United States now claims the right to murder anyone it pleases, citizen or not, without oversight. How is this different than any totalitarian government or Banana Republic?
So who is this guy anyway?
But the disclosure last month by news organizations that Mr. Awlaki, 39, had been added to the C.I.A. kill list shifted the terms of the legal debate in several ways. He is located far from hostilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the perpetrators of 9/11 are believed to be hiding.
He is alleged to be affiliated with a Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda. Intelligence analysts believe that only recently he began to help plot strikes, including the failed attempt to bomb an airliner on Dec. 25.
Most significantly, he is an American, born in New Mexico, arguably protected by the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee not to be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In a traditional war, anyone allied with the enemy, regardless of citizenship, is a legitimate target; German-Americans who fought with the Nazis in World War II were given no special treatment.
But Ms. Divoll, the former C.I.A. lawyer, said some judicial process should be required before the government kills an American away from a traditional battlefield. In addition, she offered a practical argument for a review outside the executive branch: avoiding mistakes.
She noted media reports that C.I.A. officers in 2004 seized a German citizen, Khaled el-Masri, and held him in Afghanistan for months before acknowledging that they had grabbed the wrong man. “What if we had put him on the kill list?” she asked.
Another former C.I.A. lawyer, John Radsan, said prior judicial review of additions to the target list might be unconstitutional. “That sort of review goes to the core of presidential power,” he said. But Mr. Radsan, who teaches at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, said every drone strike should be subject to rigorous internal checks to be “sure beyond a reasonable doubt” that the target is an enemy combatant.
As for the question of whether Mr. Awlaki is a legitimate target, Mr. Radsan said the cleric might not resemble an American fighting in a Nazi uniform. “But if you imagine him making radio speeches for the Germans in World War II, there’s certainly a parallel,” he said.