Did Obama Just Assassinate A U.S. Citizen? Aulaqi Killing Raises Questions Over Presidential Powers

Few people would mourn the passing of radical U.S. cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi. However, his reported death from a U.S. air strike raises the long-standing question over President Obama’s insistence that he can unilaterally label a citizen as a terrorist and order his killing. It is one of the policies (of many) that Obama continued from his predecessor, George W. Bush, and was one of the subjects of my column yesterday in the Los Angeles Times.


As with the killing of Bin Laden, the celebration of the death of an infamous individual can obscure the question of the authority — and the limitations — of a president in ordering the killing of U.S. citizens.

Under the current policy, the President effectively promises to be careful in the selection of assassination targets. It is a decision left entirely to him and his designated subordinates. It runs contrary to constitutional guarantees protecting persons accused of crimes. The President can claim that the location of such individuals abroad is the key distinction since courts limit the application of constitutional protections and limitations outside of our border. Yet, we have already seen that the Justice Department argues that other rights can be similarly waived in the country like due process rights and the right to counsel for anyone accused being an enemy combatants. The enemy combatant policy and cases largely eradicated the domestic/foreign distinction used in the past.

Because of his high-visibility status, we were informed of al-Aulaqi’s killing. However, nothing in this policy requires a president to be informed of such assassinations and the congressional oversight committees are widely viewed as rubber stamps for intelligence operations. It is not simply a question of whether a president can order such a killing of a citizen (which Bush also previously ordered), but the circumstances under which such an order can be given. Obama put al-Aulaqi on a hit list many months ago. There is no process, however, to secure any judicial review or to satisfy any showing despite over a year of such targeting. These questions remain unanswered because the Obama Administration has been successful in blocking public interest lawsuits seeking judicial review of his assassination list.

Previously, the Administration succeeded with an almost mocking argument that al-Aulaqi’s family could not file a lawsuit seeking review of the power to assassinate because al-Aulaqi himself should appear to ask for review. Thus, after saying that it would kill al-Aulaqi on sight, the Justice Department insisted that he should walk into a clerk’s office and ask for declaratory judgment. Even if his family were to sue for wrongful death, the Administration would likely use the military and state secrets privilege to block the lawsuit. Thus, the President has the authority to not simply kill citizens but to decided whether they can sue him for the act.

Even if a president has this authority, the existence of the power to kill citizens without any check or balance runs against the grain of the constitutional system. What do you think?

Update: It appears that two U.S. born cleric may have been killed.

Source: Washington Post

Here is also Glenn Greenwald’s piece on the subject.

119 thoughts on “Did Obama Just Assassinate A U.S. Citizen? Aulaqi Killing Raises Questions Over Presidential Powers

  1. Raff,

    “Ron Paul is a hypocrite.”

    Because somewhere in his 40 something years of proclaiming the dangers of empire both abroad and at home, there was a time he slipped and supported extrajudicial assassinations of american citizens anywhere on the planet?

  2. That fellow was staying out of here thinking he couldn’t be caught and tried.
    I would have liked it better had he gotten caught and tried, but he was teaching violence —– the psychiatrist in the army who shot a bunch of
    folks in Texas had studied with him. Letting that “teacher” run loose was
    like letting a rabid dog run loose and if the only way to get rid of him is
    to kill him, I think it is fine.

    I am not as sure about keeping someone locked up for ever.
    Ron Paul wants to get rid of FDA etc and I don’t want my grandchildren
    to die of food poison. There’s a bunch of other stuff he wants to change that will damage us all.

    Big Mama

  3. yeah big momma. Those fools are terrorist dune coons. They deserved to die. Evil breeds evil, and that is exactly what was destroyed!

  4. seeing obama, clinton, cheney, pelosi and bush are all anti american terrorists, why don’t they order an air strike on themselves?

  5. I have a few questions.

    1. Who says Aulaqi is a U.S. Citizen. According to several other reliable sources, we have never seen his original birth certificate.

    2. Hey, in that picture, is that aluminum foil behind him — was somebody trying to steal his thoughts?

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