Friday morning, Predator drones operated by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command rendezvoused over Yemen and launched Hellfire missiles that blew to pieces the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
A declared enemy in the war on terror was eliminated.
Yet Awlaki was a U.S. citizen.
Reps. Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul denounced the action. Kucinich said President Obama “trampled on the Constitution.” Paul said Awlaki had never been convicted. “Nobody knows if he killed anybody.” Paul described what was done as “assassinating” an American.
Did we have the right to target and kill Awlaki?
According to U.S. intelligence, Awlaki inspired or incited the Fort Hood massacre and Times Square bomber. Intelligence officials say he played a direct role in the attempt to bring down an airliner over Detroit at Christmas 2009. That would make him an accomplice in attempted mass murder.
Indeed, there is more hard evidence tying Awlaki to acts of terror against the United States than there ever was tying Saddam Hussein to acts of terror against us.
Yet it is also true that Awlaki was never convicted of these crimes. What, then, is the legal case for killing him?
Answer: America is at war with al-Qaida — a war authorized and funded by Congress. In that war, Awlaki, hiding in a foreign country, has been inspiring and inciting Muslims to massacre U.S. citizens who are noncombatants — a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Adds Obama, Awlaki was the “external operations” chief for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
And even if Awlaki were not an operations officer in al-Qaida, only a propagandist, his actions would seem to constitute wartime treason.
When killed, he was traveling with 25-year-old Saudi-born Samir Khan, another American, who edited and wrote Inspire, the English-language magazine of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Khan, who had proclaimed, “I am proud to be a traitor in America,” was also killed in the drone attack.
Do we have a right to target enemy propagandists who do not carry out acts of mass murder but encourage or instigate them?
Ezra Pound, the American poet and expatriate who made wartime broadcasts from Mussolini’s Italy attacking Jews and FDR, was charged with treason and spent a dozen years in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane.
Lord Haw-Haw, the American-born William Joyce, who broadcast from Berlin during World War II, was executed by the British, though like Pound, he killed no one. Mildred Gillars, the American-born “Axis Sally,” was imprisoned for treason in the United States after World War II.
Ikuko Toguri D’Aquino, the American woman branded “Tokyo Rose,” was imprisoned for treasonous radio broadcasts, though later pardoned by President Ford.
Would it have been unconstitutional for the U.S. military to target the radio station broadcasting Tokyo Rose?
Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi ideologist and race theorist, was convicted at Nuremberg and hanged. One does not have to kill in wartime to get the death penalty for war crimes.
Several of the German saboteurs put ashore in Florida and Long Island were U.S. citizens who were tried in secret and executed. Their executions were upheld by the Supreme Court.
As the Obama administration argues, were Japanese-Americans to have been found engaged in support of Japanese forces in wartime, they could have been targeted and killed.
The order to intercept and shoot down the aircraft carrying Adm. Yamamoto, architect of Pearl Harbor, would appear to qualify as wartime assassination. As does Winston Churchill’s decision to drop British-trained Czech and Slovak agents into Czechoslovakia to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich.
That assassination produced severe blowback. The Nazis exacted retribution on the Czech village of Lidice, killing all the males over 16 and sending the women and children to concentration camps.
But the controversy over the Awlaki-Khan killings raises real issues.
The lack of a declaration of war prevents us from charging such individuals with treason, which, under the Constitution, “shall consist only in levying War against” the United States “or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.”
The issue of dual citizenship also arises. Awlaki was a citizen of the United States, having been born here. But he was also a citizen of Yemen. What was his nationality: American or Yemeni? Was he really one of us?
In the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, the new citizen pledges, “I hereby declare, on oath, 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.”
Did not Awlaki’s leadership of al-Qaida contradict any allegiance? Obama did the right thing, but we need clarity in this new kind of war.
Having struck al-Qaida in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, where else is it permissible to use drones to kill enemies?
If American propagandists for al-Qaida are legitimate targets, who else is? Sympathizers? And for how long can we launch such attacks?
A decent respect for the opinion of mankind would seem to require answers.