There has been almost universal silence among Congressional Democrats on the Obama administration’s recently revealed decision to authorize the assassination of a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki, who now lives in Yemen, has been accused of providing inspiration for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged "underwear bomber," and Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter. In recent weeks, there has been a dramatic surge in US government chatter about the alleged threat posed by al-Awlaki, with anonymous US officials accusing him of directly participating in terror "plots" (his family passionately disputes this).
Several Democrats refused, through spokespeople, to comment on the assassination plan when contacted by The Nation, including Senator Russ Feingold and Representative Jan Schakowsky, both of whom serve on the Intelligence Committees. Representative Jane Harman, who serves on the Homeland Security Committee, said recently that Awlaki is "probably the person, the terrorist, who would be terrorist No. 1 in terms of threat against us."
One of the few Democrats to publicly address the issue of government-sanctioned assassinations is Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich. "I don’t support it–period," he said in an interview. "I think people in both parties that are concerned about the Constitution should be speaking out on this. I can’t account for what anyone else doesn’t do."
Kucinich told The Nation he has sent several letters to the Obama administration raising questions about the potential unconstitutionality of the policy, as well as possible violations of international law, but has received no response. "With all the smart people that are in that administration, they’ve got to know the risks that they’re taking here with violations of law," he says.
Targeted killings are not a new Obama administration policy. Beginning three days after his swearing in, President Obama has authorized scores of lethal drone strikes, including against specific individuals, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, surpassing the Bush era numbers. The elite Joint Special Operations Command maintains a list of individuals, including US citizens, which it is authorized to assassinate. In January, Dana Priest reported in the Washington Post that the CIA had US citizens on an assassination list, but the Post later ran a correction stating that only JSOC had "a target list that includes several Americans." The policy of the CIA targeting al-Awlaki, a US citizen, for assassination, therefore, appeared to be a new development, at least in terms of public awareness of approved government assassinations.
"In the real world, things don’t work out quite so neatly as they seem to in the heads of the CIA," says Kucinich. "There’s always the possibility of blowback, which could endanger high-ranking US officials. There’s the inevitable licensing of rogue groups that comes about from policies that are not strictly controlled and that get sloppy–so you have zero accountability. And that’s not even to get into an over-arching issue of the morality of assassination policies, which are extra-constitutional, extra-judicial. It’s very dangerous from every possible perspective."
He added: "The assassination policies vitiate the presumption of innocence and the government then becomes the investigator, policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury, executioner all in one. That raises the greatest questions with respect to our constitution and our democratic way of life."
Kucinich says the case of al-Awlaki is an attempt to make "a short-cut around the Constitution," saying, "Short-cuts often belie the deep and underlying questions around which nations rise and fall. We are really putting our nation in jeopardy by pursuing this kind of policy."