Cleric's Death: Setting a Precedent?
Published: Monday, October 31, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 12:11
The Obama administration's killing of a U.S. born cleric with ties to al-Qaida leaves the country wondering what precedent this type of execution will set.
Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a drone strike in Yemen last month. Awlaki had been on a secret kill-or-capture list of suspected U.S. born terrorists located overseas. The memo authorizing the assassination has not been released by the Obama administration, although various bits have been anonymously leaked to the press.
Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, had once been thought of as moderate in his views and was sought by the Pentagon after 9/11 to help America foster better relations with the Muslim community. His views became more critical of the country throughout the years that followed due to America's actions across the Muslim world; and the country's treatment of Muslim prisoners at home and abroad. Anti-U.S. rhetoric is permitted by the First Amendment, but U.S. officials linked Awlaki to high-profile attacks and failed terrorism plots.
Considered influential because of his sermons and writings, Awlaki may not have directly participated in any acts of terrorism. U.S. officials connected him to the Fort Hood shooting, the failed Times Square car bomb and the failed Christmas Day plane bombing. These acts may have only been committed by fans of Awlaki's ideas; officials won't release any details, even though they would help the administration's case look more believable. If the administration had a lot of information to prove Awlaki was a terrorist, it would have been all the more reason to bring him to court; it would have been easy to prove him guilty and throw the book at him. Capturing him would have also been good for intelligence gathering, assuming he has connections to terrorists.
Some people believe Alwaki committed treason, and thus gave up his citizenship. The Constitution lays out the requirements for treason, "No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in an open Court." This doesn't apply when the President decides whether or not a U.S. citizen is a terrorist, executes them with no due process and then leaks favorably selected bits of the evidence to the media after the killing has already taken place.
The memo considered various blocks and restrictions to targeting Alwaki and rejected each, concluding that what was required for him was different than ordinary criminals. Obama has said the authorization was specific to Alwaki's case, but there are other people remaining on that kill list. It is understandable to kill an enemy combatant during battle, even an American, if they take up arms against you. However, should any President have the ability to unilaterally decide on a case-by-case basis whether an American citizen counts as an enemy combatant; especially if they are located far away from a more straight-forward fighting location like the war in Afghanistan? When dealing with al-Qaida and terrorism in general, enemies are unclear, conflict is a form of unconventional guerilla warfare and there appears to be no end in sight. How many opposing combatants exist in an endless war against a nameless enemy?
Obama administration's top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, gave a speech at Harvard about America's worldwide counterterrorism practices and assured they are all legal and within the rule of law.
"Our ongoing armed conflict with al-Qaida stems from our right-recognized under international law-to self-defense." Brennan explained, "International legal principles, including respect for a nation's sovereignty and the laws of war, impose important constraints on our ability to act unilaterally-and on the way in which we can use force-in foreign territories."
Remember President Bush's National Security Strategy? It declared America-alone-has the right to carry out preventive war, rather than preemptive, against a perceived enemy regardless of the United Nations' opinion.
Yemen's sovereignty is not actually damaged in this case because Yemeni President Saleh gave the U.S. permission to nail Awlaki. This information was exposed via a WikiLeaks cable. American politicians praised Saleh after the strike. Saleh has been ruthlessly crushing pro-democracy demonstrators with the Yemeni military for most of this year and this is likely to infuriate people and turn Awlaki into a martyr.