Can the president target an American citizen in a lethal attack?
White House lawyers are struggling with that question in the case of Anwar Awlaki, a former San Diego imam and SDSU graduate student, according to an ABC News report.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted last week that U.S. intelligence and military officials consider Anwar Awlaki, a former San Diego imam and U.S. citizen, to be “a direct threat to U.S. interests” although he has not yet been accused of a crime.
Awlaki corresponded with alleged Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan before the attack that killed 12 soldiers, and investigators believe he also met with accused “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
- For more see my Awlaki timeline.
ABC’s Matthew Cole, Richard Esposito and Brian Ross are reporting:
According to the people who were briefed on the issue, American officials fear the possibility of criminal prosecution without approval in advance from the White House for a targeted strike against Awlaki.
The former imam at the Masjid al-Rabat al-Islami in San Diego was said to be in the Predator’s sights after the Fort Hood attack, but the strike wasn’t authorized because of questions over the citizenship of the New Mexico-born Awlaki.
President Reagan signed an an executive order in 1981 that forbid anyone employed by or acting on behalf of the U.S. government from engaging in or conspiring to engaging in assassination. That order remains in effect today.
However, we can kill those who are trying to kill us. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress gave the president the authority to use “all necessary and appropriate force” to prevent future acts of terrorism against the United States. The specifics are said to be set out in a secret presidential “finding” signed by President Bush after the attacks.
In 2002, a CIA drone attack in Yemen killed a carload of suspected terrorists, including the target of the operation, the top al-Qaida leader in the country. U.S. officials weren’t troubled that the strike killed Yemeni-American Kamal Derwish, a U.S. citizen. “No constitutional questions are raised here,” said National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Putting the bullseye on Awlaki and pulling the trigger would break new legal ground and raise fresh questions about the limits of presidential power.
At the very least, the U.S. government should make plainly clear what Awlaki has done to earn the wrath of a Hellfire missile. Meeting, corresponding and, odious as it may be, enouraging jihadists, doesn’t cut it.