Earlier today, at the order of the President of the United States, a missile launched from a U.S. drone killed U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, an Islamic cleric reputed to be one of the top terrorist recruiters in the world and a key figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
al-Awlaki had not been charged or convicted of any crime. This was an extrajudicial assassination. Moreover, IANAL, but according to people who are at the American Civil Liberties Union, the killing was ordered and carried out in violation of both U.S. and international law.
The targeted killing program violates both U.S. and international law. As we’ve seen today, this is a program under which American citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept secret not just from the public but from the courts. The government’s authority to use lethal force against its own citizens should be limited to circumstances in which the threat to life is concrete, specific, and imminent. It is a mistake to invest the President — any President — with the unreviewable power to kill any American whom he deems to present a threat to the country.
The president’s behavior appears to be, on its face, a violation of al-Awlaki’s rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. (UPDATE: And the First Amendment, too, apparently; see SCOTUS majority opinion in Brandenburg v. Ohio.) As I just noted in another context, denying or conspiring to deny another citizen his civil rights is a felony. It was wrong when George W. Bush did it, and it’s wrong now. Accordingly, I renew my call of May 21, 2010, for President Obama to be impeached and removed from office. (UPDATE: I first called for Obama’s impeachment on 1/27/10 over this very case.)
I get that Anwar al-Awlaki was a bad actor. I get that. But he was also a U.S. citizen and, as such, unquestionably entitled to due process, which means charges, an indictment, and a jury trial if he wished to contest the charges.
When the president of the United States can singlehandedly order the assassination of a U.S. citizen without charge or trial, we’re not just on the slippery slope toward dictatorship, we’re in free fall.