Other writers have also engaged with the story. On Monday, Adam Serwer of The American Prospect noted a recent speech by State Department adviser Harold Koh about the legal basis of the drone strike program, and wondered whether it might also serve as an explanation for why it’s legal to target citizens without due process. (Coincidentally, The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of Koh’s remarks—and of the misgivings they elicited in some observers—made a passing reference to al-Awlaki.) Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent used Serwer’s post as an opportunity to preview Attorney General Eric Holder’s testimony on Wednesday, and to remind readers that he’s filed FOIA requests seeking “the actual rationale adopted by the Obama administration.” Last week, meanwhile, National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson followed up his initial post with some more trenchant concerns about “the prospect of putting American citizens on a government hit list.” A story in the Christian Science Monitor, while it didn’t push very hard on official sources, suggested that targeting Awlaki for assassination was “probably legal.” And deeper into the blogosphere, Opinio Juris contributor and Melbourne Law School professor Kevin Jon Heller took a detailed look at some of the relevant statutes and concluded that, in his view, killing Awlaki would amount to murder.
So kudos to those folks for keeping a spotlight on this story. The major papers, on the other hand, have largely kept their readers in the dark. The Associated Press and Reuters have reported on the Yemeni government’s mixed signals about whether it will or will not go after al-Awlaki on its own, and on al-Awlaki’s tribesmen’s displeasure with the whole situation; some of that coverage has filtered into papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. But that seems to be it. In his Opinio Juris post last Thursday, Heller wrote that he had “yet to see any reporter ask why Obama believes he has the legal authority to order Americans killed.” Outside of Ackerman, we haven’t seen any evidence that reporters on the beat are asking this question, either.
To be fair, asking the question is often easier in theory than in practice. Obama and his subordinates will no doubt duck the issue until they’re ready to go on the record with their reasoning; Wright, meanwhile, offers some reasons for skepticism about what this line of inquiry can accomplish. Nonetheless, there is much, much more the press corps could be doing to demand a coherent explanation from the administration. Reporters could have, for example, asked a question about the al-Awlaki standard at the president’s press conference Tuesday. Or during the Sunday morning talk shows. Or at one of the seven briefings and gaggles featuring national security officials over a recent five-day period. Or, for that matter, the press could just start writing stories noting that the administration hasn’t adequately explained why it’s legal to kill an American citizen—and keep writing those stories until they get an answer.
It’s still only been a week since the news of the CIA authorization broke; we can only hope that there’s reporting being done now that has yet to be published. When a government asserts the right to target its own citizens on a global battlefield—without due process, independent review, or even a clearly defined standard—it’s a big story. We need a press that treats it as one.