After a two-year manhunt, the Obama administration ordered the targeted killing of Islamic extremist Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen. The case has ignited a debate over the reach of constitutional protections.
American-born terrorists can be targeted by drones
As part of its on-going global campaign to wipe out the leadership of the terrorist group al Qaeda, the United States has targeted and killed an American citizen via drone strike for the first time in the politically volatile Arab nation of Yemen.
The man targeted for death, Anwar al-Awlaki, was accused of both inciting and planning a series of attacks against the United States in recent years. As a Muslim cleric infamous for violent anti-American rhetoric, Awlaki allegedly inspired the Fort Hood massacre in 2009 as well as the failed attempt to detonate a truck bomb in New York's Times Square in 2010. And he reportedly played a direct role in planning the aborted attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger plane two Christmases ago.
A second American citizen, Samir Khan, was also killed in the drone strike. Khan, who grew up in Queens, New York and lived for a time in North Carolina, was the editor of al Qaeda's English-language online magazine Inspire.
Although US President Barack Obama did not mention Awlaki's citizenship during his public statement hailing last Friday's drone strike as a victory, the president stated that the New Mexican native was the head of "external operations" for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), thereby making him a legitimate target for elimination.
"The death of Awlaki marks another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates," President Obama said during a farewell ceremony for out-going Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral Mike Mullen.
Awlaki's fluency in both English and Arabic made him a unique figure in al Qaeda
But civil libertarians and constitutional experts have sharply criticized the Obama administration for denying Awlaki due process rights guaranteed to citizens under the 5th amendment of the United States' Constitution.
"Absent that kind of a hearing it is unprecedented and illegal to simply assassinate a human being in that way, a US citizen," Baher Azmy, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, told Deutsche Welle.
The Awlaki killing received bi-partisan support among former Bush administration officials and current members of President Obama's cabinet, which has ramped up Washington's controversial drone war against alleged al Qaeda terrorists as it seeks to extricate US ground troops from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has claimed that although Awlaki was a US citizen, he was also clearly a terrorist and therefore could be legally targeted and killed without being charged or tried.
"Yes he was a citizen, but if you're a terrorist you're a terrorist," Panetta said during an interview with the American broadcaster CNN.
Former vice president Dick Cheney, known for his vocal support of aggressive counterterrorism measures, praised the strike and stated that the executive branch can carry out such operations regardless of the target's nationality in the name of US national security.
"The president ought to have that kind of authority to order that kind of strike, even when it involves an American citizen, when there is clear evidence that he's part of al Qaeda," Cheney said during an appearance on the CNN program State of the Union.
The global pursuit of terrorists through military means enjoys bi-partisan support
Matthew Waxman, an expert on national security law who served in the Bush administration, told Deutsche Welle that the US government claims the legal authority to launch "lethal strikes" against alleged terrorist operatives like Awlaki in the context of America's on-going armed conflict against al Qaeda and its allies.
Although the United States considers itself at war with al Qaeda, some legal experts argue that Yemen does not constitute a legally established battlefield like Afghanistan, and as a consequence Awlaki enjoyed the same constitutional protections in Yemen that he had in New Mexico.
"There is no authority for a state party to simply designate the entire earth a battlefield and therefore go out and kill human beings under this self-granted authority," Azmy said.
"Under the government's logic, if I'm blogging about the criminality of US foreign policy or blogging support for al Qaeda or even a member of al Qaeda in the US, they could assassinate me," he added.
The Obama administration claims that there is a rigorous process in place to ensure the legality and accuracy of drone strikes, but information as to who makes the final decision has not been made public, according to Waxman.
A lack of transparency regarding the legal process used to vet drone strikes, particularly those against American citizens, has raised concern that the executive branch has set a dangerous precedent whereby it can claim virtually unchecked power to kill in the name of national security.
"I am not aware of a limiting principle," Azmy said. "We can take assurances that this power will not be used widely but that's all that we're left with is an assurance and typically in our constitutional system, that's not satisfying enough."
Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Rob Mudge