Awlaki Assassination Puts Obama Above the Law

Awlaki Assassination Puts Obama Above the Law

Awlaki Assassination Puts Obama Above the Law

Welcome to the Drone Empire, in which the president’s executioners can kill without legal restraint.


The day I became a citizen of these United States, June 17, 2009, in the old Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland, I raised my right hand and swore that I “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

To my immediate left in that vast and splendid Deco theater was a Moroccan; to my right, a Salvadoran; and around us 956 others from ninety-eight countries, each holding a small specimen of the flag that was about to become our standard. All of us had sworn earlier that day that since our final, successful interviews with immigration officials we had not become prostitutes or members of the Communist Party. (When asked some years earlier, also in Oakland, whether she planned to overthrow the government by force, Jessica Mitford answered, “What other choices do I have?”)

The sovereignty I was abjuring was the Republic of Ireland, itself not so far from shifting its allegiance from the Irish Constitution to the dictates of European bankers. Since questions about the Bill of Rights were likely to come up in those final interviews, many people in the theater had a pretty clear notion that along with allegiance came certain important protections, such as guarantees of due process and the right to a public trial by jury. There’s no doubt that for many, with vivid memories of summary seizure and arbitrary imprisonment in their biographies, these guarantees had great significance.

But it turns out it was all a fraud. The Uzbek down the row from me who had fled Karimov’s regime probably had no need to anticipate being boiled alive—a spécialité de la maison in Tashkent. But being roasted alive by Hellfire missile, doomed by executive order of President Obama, without due process in any court of law, for reasons of state forever secret, could theoretically lie in his future. If presidential death warrants beyond the reach of scrutiny and review by courts or juries are the mark of a banana republic, then we were all waving the flag of just such an entity.

On May 21, less than a month before that June morning in 2009, Obama had abandoned his commitments to restore the rule of law after the abuses of his predecessor. In a speech at the National Archives he announced that he was reviving the military commission trial system, and disclosed that his advisers had told him that some prisoners at Guantánamo may be too dangerous to release. Though there was insufficient evidence to build a case, they would be held indefinitely without charge or trial.

Then, in February 2010, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair blithely told a House committee that “being a US citizen will not spare an American from getting assassinated by military or intelligence operatives overseas if the individual is working with terrorists and planning to attack fellow Americans.” Blair added helpfully that if “we think direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.”

On September 30 a CIA drone unit based in Yemen incinerated two US citizens: Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric, and Samir Khan, associated with Inspire magazine. With zero credible evidence, the administration is portraying Awlaki as a senior Al Qaeda commander and Khan as a “belligerent”; news reports present Khan as a sophisticated pamphleteer whose skills had supposedly rendered him the Tom Paine of Muslim extremism. Tremendous emphasis is placed on the murdered men’s fluent command of English, a facility that seems to have sealed their death warrants.

The administration claims it canvassed legal opinion within the government but refuses to disclose what this opinion was, except that it supported the assassination as legal—a claim parroted by the establishment press, along with opinions from rather carefully selected authorities. My favorite is from Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times. She spared her readers the views of Ron Paul, a well-known member of Congress and presidential candidate who denounced the killing, preferring to cite an obviously unbiased authority: “‘This attack appears to have met the criteria of proportionality, military necessity and the absence of alternatives to be in full accordance with a state’s right to aggressive self-defense,’ said [Amos] Guiora, a former Israel Defense Forces legal advisor involved in targeted killing decisions in the Gaza Strip in the mid-1990s.”

Al Qaeda is a puny force whose prime function today is to justify the war in Afghanistan and the overall “war on terror,” and to boost Obama’s re-election campaign. Whatever Awlaki may have done, aside from earn martyr status, is irrelevant to the basic issue—which is that he should not have been punished until convicted in a court of law.

There is no reason to suppose that Obama’s successor will rescind the authority assumed by the former lecturer in constitutional law. Increases in executive power are rarely forfeited. We have thus embarked on a new era: after decades of passionately denying its forays into assassination, the CIA now preens over them, having trumped the military by seizing the role of chief executioner with a rapidly expanding drone empire, mostly tasked with killing foreigners but not shirking elimination of US citizens.

For years Jeremy Bentham tried to sell the British government on the idea of a Panopticon: a prison designed so that a single guard could monitor and control a thousand convicts. We now have a global Panopticon, serviced by CIA spy planes that can survey every square foot of Google Earth, enforced by drones and pedestrian assassins, all acting at the behest of one man beyond the reach of constitutional restraint. We are back with the lettres de cachet, themselves the descendants of Roman imperial dictatorship: Rex solutus est a legibus, the king is released from the laws.

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