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,

    I love his daddy’s music. I even liked some of Junior’s music. But much like Ted Nugent, his running off at the mouth managed to ruin that later part for me.

  2. So much evidence, there’s no need to show it
    BY GLENN GREENWALD
    Salon
    SUNDAY, OCT 2, 2011 10:30 PM
    http://politics.salon.com/2011/10/03/awlaki_7/singleton/

    Excerpt:
    During the NSA eavesdropping controversy, Bush defenders insisted there was no harm from bypassing the FISA court because they were only eavesdropping on Bad Terrorists (who could possibly object to that?), which prompted this obvious, unanswerable question (one I asked here, among other places): if you really have so much evidence proving that the targets of your eavesdropping are Terrorists, then why not go show it to the court and get a warrant? After all, the more incriminating evidence you claim exists, the more (not less) reason there is to show it to a court. Similarly, during the controversy over Bush’s (and now Obama’s) detentions without due process, administration defenders insisted there was no need to charge the detainees or try them in a court because they were only imprisoning the-worst-of-the-worst, too-dangerous-to-release Terrorists (who could possibly object to that?), which prompted the same question: if there’s so much evidence proving they’re Terrorists, isn’t that even more of a reason to prove that in court?

    Now that hordes of Obama defenders are running around justifying the President’s due-process-free assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar Awlaki based on exactly the same claim and mindset — our President targeted a Very Bad Terrorist, so no due process or disclosure of evidence was needed — the same question obviously arises: if there’s so much evidence showing that Awlaki was involved in plotting Terrorist attacks on the U.S. (as opposed merely to delivering anti-U.S. sermons protected by the First Amendment), isn’t that even more of a reason to have indicted him and charged him with crimes before killing him? Please watch this amazing video of ABC News‘ Jake Tapper persistently questioning a stonewalling, imperious White House spokesman Jay Carney about this issue; remember: he’s asking the White House what evidence justified the U.S Government’s targeting of its own citizen for assassination with no due process, and the White House is telling him: we have it in secret but don’t need to show anyone (via Robert P. Murphy)

  3. Oro:

    “Must the SWAT sniper wait for a Court Order before taking out the gunman in a bank hostage situation?”

    *******************

    Like any other official — including the Presidnet of the United States— that sniper, finger crooked about the trigger, both eyes wide open, and breath tauntly held, must follow the law whether fortified with an opinion of the court or not. That is what makes us a nation of laws, and not of men with rifles aimed at our heads.

  4. Oro Lee 1, October 1, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Must the SWAT sniper wait for a Court Order before taking out the gunman in a bank hostage situation?
    =====================================================
    Did the defendant in this case meet your false frame, that is, did the defendant in this case get shot by a SWAT sniper because he was robbing a bank during which he took hostages?

  5. Confused Catholic,

    “Help me, I am confused.”

    Join the club.

    It is not our fault.

    The guilt, the fault, is upon those who breach the office of trust bestowed upon them.

  6. I am concerned with what we currently have running for president. On one hand we have a bunch of lunatics running on the right, which are for capitol punishment. Then we have one on the left, that looks like he is on the right but is for abortion and and killing American citizens that he disagrees with without a court hearing. Help me, I am confused.

  7. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/02/world/middleeast/yemen-notes-its-own-role-in-us-attack-on-militant.html?hp

    Yemen Notes Its Own Role in U.S. Attack on Militant
    By LAURA KASINOF

    Published: October 1, 2011

    SANA, Yemen — Yemeni officials provided more details on Saturday about their role in the tracking and killing of an American-born cleric, while a government spokesman said that the United States should show more appreciation to Yemen’s embattled president for his assistance in the case.

    A high-ranking Yemeni official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Yemen had provided the United States with intelligence on the location of the cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by an American drone strike on Friday. The information came from “a tip that came from a recently captured Al Qaeda operative,” the official said.

    The timing of the airstrikes 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.

    American officials said Friday that there was no connection between Mr. Saleh’s return and the airstrikes. They said that American and Yemeni security forces had been hunting Mr. Awlaki for nearly two years, and that fresh information about his location surfaced about three weeks ago.

    The spokesman for Yemen’s opposition coalition, Mohammed Qahtan, rejected the idea that Mr. Awlaki’s killing cast the government in a favorable light. Instead, it shows “the regime’s failure and weakness to perform its duty to arrest and try Awlaki in accordance with the Constitution,” Mr. Qahtan said. “And it’s that that forced America to go after him using their own means.”

    Although Yemen did not carry out the strike, which was launched from a secret American base in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemeni officials were quick to trumpet the results. A high-ranking Yemeni security official called The New York Times at 10:15 a.m. local time on Friday, about 20 minutes after the attack.

    The Defense Ministry broadcast the announcement an hour later, hours before American officials made any public statement. (end of excerpts)

  8. Must the SWAT sniper wait for a Court Order before taking out the gunman in a bank hostage situation?

    Does the 5th amendment (or any other constitutional provision) apply to extra-judicial action against an individual beyond the reach of US civil jurisdiction and who is reasonably believed to be actively engaged in ongoing activities constituting a clear and present danger to the US?

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