On April 6, government officials let it be known that the CIA, like the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, has been authorized by the White House to capture or kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric who is alleged to have assumed an operational role within Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group’s branch in Yemen. In the wake of that revelation, Campaign Desk implored the media to demand that the administration explain why it is legal to target al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was born in New Mexico, without recourse to the traditional rights of due process, or any publicly defined alternative framework. So in the week since then, how’s the media done on this score?
Let’s start with the good stuff. On Tuesday, Newsweek’s Web site published an op-ed by Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, about the targeting of al-Awlaki. Johnsen mostly sidesteps the legal issues (though he does refer to the prospective killing as a “potentially legal assassination”). Instead, he attacks the logic behind the effort, arguing that al-Awlaki is “a nobody—at best, a midlevel functionary in a local branch,” and that killing him would do more to boost recruits for Al Qaeda than disable its efforts. In fact, he claims:
[I]t is not even known for certain that Awlaki is a member of Al Qaeda. Certainly there are suspicions, and his published statements and interviews clearly support Al Qaeda, but the organization has never acknowledged him. His name has been mentioned exactly once in 12 issues of Sada al-Malahim (“The Echo of Battles”), the organization’s bimonthly journal. And even that citation was hardly an endorsement: it merely disputed recent claims that Awlaki had been killed in a joint U.S.-Yemeni airstrike. He has never written an article, released an audiotape, or starred in a video for the organization. Each of these is an integral part of the group’s propaganda outreach that senior AQAP leaders have done multiple times.
What’s more, there is no evidence to suggest Awlaki is on AQAP’s legal council, an internal group that both provides the religious justification for attacks and guides the future direction of the organization. Nor is there even a hint that he plays anything resembling a leading role in the group.
While Johnsen does not present an argument about due process rights per se, that critique runs corollary to his piece. Clearly, there is a factual dispute about the nature of al-Awlaki’s role in Al Qaeda and the danger he poses. Traditionally, factual disputes regarding claims against citizens are resolved in a neutral forum—e.g., a trial—before the government takes action, especially irrevocable action. So we’re back to the original question: Why doesn’t that standard apply here, and what standard does apply?