Reports that the United States may target another U.S. citizen for death because of his alleged involvement in terrorism are troubling, especially in light of unanswered questions about the drone attack in Yemen in 2011 that killed the U.S.-born Anwar Awlaki. This time, the potential target is said to be in Pakistan.
If the United States is again to deliberately take the life of one of its citizens without due process of law, leaders from the president on down must, at the very least, offer specific and credible proof that such action was absolutely necessary to prevent imminent attacks on Americans and that capturing the suspected terrorist was impossible.
Satisfactory substantiation was never provided for the assassination of Awlaki, a propagandist for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula who, according to the U.S. government, had assumed an operational role. Nor was the public fully informed about how President Obama and his advisers decided that Awlaki’s name belonged on a kill list.
In March 2012, almost six months after Awlaki and a U.S.-born associate, Samir Khan, were killed in a drone strike, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. divulged the general criteria used to determine whether a U.S. citizen abroad could be targeted for death. He must be a “senior operational leader of al-Qaida or associated forces,” he must be “actively engaged in planning to kill Americans,” and his “capture would not be feasible.”
Those sound like exacting standards, but the public needs to have confidence that they are being strictly followed, especially given the lamentable lack of oversight by the courts. After all, the government that is asking the public to trust it when it comes to the execution of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism is the same administration that failed to disclose that the National Security Agency was indiscriminately collecting information about innocent Americans’ telephone calls.
In a speech last May, Obama argued that “when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens ... his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.” Even if one accepts that proposition, the administration owes the American public — and not just members of Congress meeting in closed briefings — a detailed explanation of why the government decided to take the life of an American.