The al-Awlaki Assassination

Glenn Greenwald and Adam Serwer are both highly critical of the Obama administration's extrajudicial killing of alleged terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, while Ben Wittes rises to its defense. I think the former two have the more persuasive case. I do have one caveat, which is that I don't think the fact that al-Awlaki is an American citizen is the key problem. If an American citizen took up against the American military on a battlefield, nobody would suggest that such a person should be exempt from attack, and on the other side, a terrorist suspect apprehended on American soil is entitled to due process, even if he's not an American citizen.

The real problem, as Adam notes, is the precedent this sets. It's simply very hard to square the ability of the president to order the assassination of individuals, outside a battlefield, based on secret evidence with our constitutional framework. As Amy Davidson wrote last year, if al-Awlaki was had a clear operational involvement with al-Qaeda, it's not clear why he couldn't be indicted in an American court. And nor, as my colleague Robert Farley points out, is there good reason to believe that he couldn't have been taken alive. This was a matter of convenience, not necessity, which is the central problem. Even if we grant that al-Awlaki is as dangerous as the Obama administration asserts, giving presidents the arbitrary power to kill also has the potential to make Americans less safe. Once executive powers have been claimed, they are very difficult to put back in the bag.

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