After much resistance, the Obama Administration has reluctantly released a redacted copy of a formal memo written by the U.S. Department of Justice to attempt to legally justify the targeted assassination of an American citizen without trial.
The controversy relates to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. Born in New Mexico in 1971, al-Awlaki was a Muslim imam, religious scholar, lecturer, and earned a master’s degree from an American university.
With his religious zeal, scholarly reputation, and firey opposition to U.S. foreign wars, he became an appealing source of inspiration and advice within the Muslim fundamentalist community. On multiple occasions, people he had allegedly interacted with on the internet subsequently committed crimes. This caused U.S. intelligence agencies to label him a terrorist recruiter.
Yet, by all accounts, Al-Awlaki was a person of influence, not an actual combatant or militant. He was never accused of engaging in a battle, nor was he ever accused of planning an actual attack. He was never accused of being anything other than an internet provocateur, writing emails and having associations that did not meet the approval of American spy agencies.
Adding to the mystery, before Al-Awlaki was branded an al Qaeda affiliate, he was being treated as a dinner guest at the Pentagon.
It should be stressed that the unproven claims listed above are those that have been filtered to the public through the government. Americans are supposed to take the CIA at its word that the man they marked for death was actually the terrorist they described him as.
Al-Awlaki, a natural-born U.S. citizen, was not charged with a crime, was never given a day in court, and did not have an opportunity to defend himself. His fate, however, would be sealed when a secret panel looked at secret evidence and issued a secret order to execute him by drone. On September 30, 2011, the CIA dispatched two Predator drones to Yemen to fire missiles at him while eating breakfast.
The assassination of Al-Awlaki left many watchdogs concerned about the implications of a living under government with the power to issue death without a criminal charge — much less a conviction. If al-Awlaki was indeed a bad guy, the U.S. government blew their opportunity to prove it to the American public and set a disturbing precedent for executing Americans. This would only be the first such incident under the Obama Administration. Several subsequent American citizens were also droned, including al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old U.S.-born son.
In June 2014, a federal lawsuit forced the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) to release a memo detailing the supposed legality of executing Anwar al-Awlaki. The Obama Administration had been fighting to conceal the information, having denied a FOIA request and citing national security as a blanket excuse for secrecy.
The DOJ memo, which begins on page 67 of the federal lawsuit (PDF), argues that a killing is only considered “murder” when it is done “unlawfully.” And since the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) grants the President the unchecked ability to target and kill any persons that he determines to be involved with terrorism against the USA, the DOJ decided that the killing was “lawful.”
The government claimed that al-Awlaki posed a “continued an imminent threat” to the USA, although that assertion must be taken on faith alone, because any supporting evidence is shrouded in secrecy.
Furthermore, the DOJ document “conclude[s] that the AUMF authorizes DoD to detain individuals who are part of al-Qaida even if they are apprehended and transferred to U.S. custody while not on a traditional battlefield.” It continues, “In light of these precedents, we believe the AUMF’s authority to use lethal force abroad also may apply in appropriate circumstances to a United States citizen who is part of the forces of an enemy organization within the scope of the force authorization.”
It is not hyperbole to say that anyone — American citizen or not — may be branded as a terrorist or terrorist-supporter based on secret evidence and killed by the U.S. military.
In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed that targeted military strikes can even take place on U.S. soil.
“It is possible,” Holder wrote, “to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.”
The ACLU, partly responsible for filing a lawsuit that made this memo public, stated that it would push for more information to be released:
“We will continue to press for the release of other documents relating to the targeted-killing program, including other legal memos and documents relating to civilian casualties.” [ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel] Jaffer said.
“The drone program has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, including countless innocent bystanders, but the American public knows scandalously little about who is being killed and why.”