The National Security Case Against Killing Anwar al-Awlaki

Created: April 07, 2010 16:07 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

For a moment, leave aside the legal questions about the Obama administration’s apparent decision that it possesses the legal authority to order the extra-judicial killing of American citizen and possible al-Qaeda affiliate Anwar al-Awlaki. Karen Greenberg, director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security and the person who convinced me the government can’t just revoke al-Awlaki’s citizenship, views a potential assassination of the Yemen-based cleric as a looming national security blunder.

“Why kill someone who’s crucially important to linking that world and our world?” Greenberg said. “From the point of view of national security, having him in custody is far more important than killing him. He is an enemy that knows an incredible amount. Wouldn’t you like to know who in the U.S. has been in conversation with him?”

There’s an additional irony, as Marcy Wheeler pointed out this morning. (Full disclosure: Marcy and I are both part of the Firedoglake blog-mafia.) Chances are whatever determination that al-Awlaki has crossed the line from inciting terrorist plots to participating in them — as an anonymous administration official cited to Greg Miller – came from the interrogation of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Which occurred with the full protections of Miranda rights under the U.S. criminal justice system. Abdulmutallab, of course, isn’t a citizen and al-Awlaki is.

On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t even credit the recent determination that al-Awlaki has “recently become an operational figure for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” as the official told Miller. After all, the U.S. tried to kill him with a drone-launched missile strike in December.

For Greenberg, even before the legal and constitutional questions about the permissibility of killing al-Awlaki arise, the strategic wisdom of it escapes her. “This is not a human rights issue, primarily, for me,” she said. “What do we get out of killing him?”

To be on the safe side, this morning, The Washington Independent filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Justice Department and the CIA for any documentation determining the legal basis for an extra-judicial killing of any American citizen on counterterrorism grounds. This is after repeated messages left with DOJ, White House and CIA spokespeople to uncover that assertion. All I got was a quote from CIA spokesman George Little that “this agency conducts its counterterrorism operations in strict accord with the law.” I was unable to persuade George to elaborate on the basis for his confidence that, in this case, it’s doing that.