Apparently Assassinating U.S. Citizens Without a Trial is Totally Cool If a Nobel Prize Winner Does It
Even though the Global War on Terror is ten years old, many Americans remain conflicted about what kind of tactics can be justified in the name of national security. As we’ve heard many times, this is a conflict unlike any other in history, without a clearly defined battlefield against combatants who do not observe the laws of war. The nature of this war is so unique that it has dramatically changed our expectations about how far the Executive Branch is allowed to go to keep Americans safe. You may recall the previous U.S. President believed there were essentially no limits on his power to make war however he saw fit.
That guy took a lot of heat for his expansive view of presidential power. His successor was elected in part because he claimed he would not abuse his power in a similar fashion. And in fact he hasn’t – he has abused his power in a far more spectacular fashion than the last guy. You’re not going to believe this, but apparently President Barack Obama believes that his power as Commander in Chief gives him the authority to summarily execute U.S. citizens without any kind of due process. This is something different, and it establishes a dangerous precedent that fundamentally changes what the rule of law means in the United States of America.
And most of you couldn’t care less, right?
The story so far…
Anwar al-Awlaki was a U.S.-born resident of Yemen. Mr. Awlaki has long been a target of counterterrorism authorities based on his connections to terrorist groups and his vocal support of jihad against the U.S. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s the executive summary of Awlaki’s crimes from the executive himself:
The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate. Awlaki was the leader of external operations for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans. He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009. He directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010. And he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda.
Well, that settles it then. Awlaki “directed” and “called on” people to do bad things. No need for specifics or a proper review of the evidence.
For more details, here’s a handy summary from ABC News’ Jake Tapper. In bullet point format, Tapper compiles the list of allegations against Awlaki, including that he “tried to obtain weapons of mass destruction,” “supervised [a] failed terrorist plot” to blow up two airplanes, and has made numerous public statements that he supports violence against U.S. citizens.
That’s all very lurid, and it certainly doesn’t portray Awlaki in a flattering light. And as far as I’m aware, Awlaki has never been shy about advocating jihad. However, I am a little curious about how exactly he supervised these failed plots, including the Christmas underwear bomb. I suppose I’ll just have to wait until government officials decide to provide more details. Hopefully they have better intelligence now than they did during the Iraq-WMD days…
Notably, Awlaki has never been accused of actually taking up arms against the U.S. on a traditional battlefield, a la John Walker Lindh. That’s an important distinction, because although there is substantial evidence that Awlaki was a terrorist-supporting degenerate, there doesn’t appear to be anyone claiming he committed acts of violence himself.
Another important distinction is that Awlaki was indeed born in the U.S. and thus an American citizen, which typically means he had different due process expectations than the average jihadi captured in the mountains of Tora Bora. As you may recall, Walker Lindh wasn’t consigned to Guantanamo Bay to rot with everyone else – he was indicted by a federal grand jury, accepted a plea bargain, and is currently incarcerated.
In other words, the Walker Lindh precedent had been that U.S. citizens are afforded due process rights even if they are literally fighting alongside Al Qaeda. If it wasn’t feasible to capture Awlaki, he could have been tried in absentia. That’s not ideal, but it would at least have provided a forum for the government to present its evidence.
By killing Awlaki in a drone strike with no due process whatsoever, a new precedent has been established. Not only was a U.S. citizen targeted for assassination without even being charged, the White House has been shameless about what they were trying to do. Here’s a story in the WSJ from May about how they tried to kill Awlaki then and failed.
If there have been any prominent Democrats that oppose the killing of a U.S. citizen without due process, they are keeping it to themselves. (Carl Levin has at least asked for Obama to explain himself.) In fact, the only two politicians to have criticized the Awlaki assassination are both running for the Republican presidential nomination.
Here is Ron Paul saying, “If the American people accept this blindly and casually [that] we now have an accepted practice of the president assassinating people who he thinks are bad guys, I think it’s sad.”
Here is former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson saying, “I certainly at best have mixed feelings about this — this is why this country was established, you can’t have a government going through the countryside rounding up citizens because they are a threat to the country and then putting them to death.” (Fun fact: Awlaki was born in New Mexico.)
Other than these two guys who are not going to win the GOP nomination, very few Americans seem to be troubled by this unfortunate turn of events. Most folks seem to assume that if the government says he was a bad guy, then he must have been – as if the government has some great track record of not fucking up everything it touches.
Last month, the NYT ran an op-ed by some guy named Gregory Johnsen who is apparently a grad student in Near Eastern studies at Princeton, in which he claims the then-living Awlaki was not as influential in Al Qaeda as U.S. officials have alleged. Johnsen described Awlaki as a “midlevel religious functionary” with no operational power. Awlaki may have said things, and wrote things, but that’s a far cry from actually “directing” terrorist plots.
I have no idea who Johnsen is. When he claims Awlaki wasn’t particularly dangerous, it’s his word against Obama’s. Well, we have a few years of history now that demonstrate Obama is full of shit. That doesn’t mean Johnsen is right, but as National Review’s Kevin Williamson points out, these are the types of things that get reviewed at a trial when the allegations are against a U.S. citizen.
I suspect there won’t be much criticism of Obama from the left because progressives care about civil liberties precisely as much as conservatives care about limited government – only when they guy they didn’t vote for is in the White House. As it stands, President Obama has claimed for himself the right to act as judge, jury, and executioner of any “enemy combatant” who says things he doesn’t like, without independent review or legislative oversight. And the reason Obama can get away with it is that he thinks you, dear reader, don’t particularly care that the rule of law means nothing in America.
As Ron Paul says, it’s sad.