The New York Times reports that Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al-Qaeda affiliated extremist cleric who has been connected to both the Fort Hood shooting and the attempted Christmas Day bombing has been put on a kill list by the United States government:
“The danger Awlaki poses to this country is no longer confined to words,” said an American official, who like other current and former officials interviewed for this article spoke of the classified counterterrorism measures on the condition of anonymity. “He’s gotten involved in plots.”
The American ban on assassination isn't actually a statute -- it's a series of executive orders beginning with one issued by President Gerald Ford in 1976. Director of Central Intelligence Dennis Blair acknowledged in February that Americans who joined al-Qaeda could be targeted for killing based on "permission" from high-level government officials, and my guess is that the rationale for why this is legal is likely to rest on a similar explanation as the drone strikes. Namely, the killings are "justified" both as an act of self-defense and as an act of war against an enemy target.
Civil-liberties advocates argue that this means the administration is, like their predecessors, relying on an overly broad definition of "war" in which the entire planet is the battlefield, where even American citizens can be targeted for killing based on secret evidence. This is what the ACLU's Ben Wizner said at the time of Blair's disclosure:
It is alarming to hear that the Obama administration is asserting that the president can authorize the assassination of Americans abroad, even if they are far from any battlefield and may have never taken up arms against the U.S., but have only been deemed to constitute an unspecified 'threat.' This is the most recent consequence of a troublingly overbroad interpretation of Congress's 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. This sweeping interpretation envisions a war that knows no borders or definable time limits and targets an enemy that the government has refused to define in public. This policy is particularly troubling since it targets U.S. citizens, who retain their constitutional right to due process even when abroad.
Ken Gude, a human-rights expert with the Center for American Progress, argued that the government's policy would be justified in the case of al-Awlaki, because of his suspected role in assisting the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.
"There is much debate about how broadly both the Bush and Obama administrations have interpreted [the Authorization to Use Military Force], a concern that I share, but this instance is not one of those cases," Gude says. "It cannot plausibly be argued that Awlaki, who is mentioned repeatedly in the 9/11 Commission report as having assisted the 9/11 hijackers, is not a person who aided the 9/11 attacks."
UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman looks at the references to Awlaki in the 9/11 Commission report and disagrees with Gude.
-- A. Serwer