The Slippery Slope of Assassinations

With the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and al-Qaeda associate based in Yemen, the Obama administration has stepped onto a slippery slope where loosening standards for extrajudicial killings could slide into a terrifying use of government power, the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland writes.

By Ivan Eland

The execution of a potentially innocent Troy Davis last month justifiably horrified many in the United States and around the world. Most of the non-police eyewitnesses had recanted or contradicted their testimony that he killed an off-duty police officer; they alleged that they had been pressured or coerced by the police to implicate Davis.

The case has led to important questions about whether the state should or is competent to kill its own citizens, no matter what heinous crime they are accused of committing. Yet at least Troy Davis got due process (however flawed), as the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution requires, before being executed.

In contrast, there has been no similar outrage that Anwar al-Awlaki, also a U.S. citizen, has been put on a U.S. government assassination list with no due process.

Anwar al-Awlaki

That’s because the word “terrorist” has been applied to al-Awlaki, meaning that hysteria reigns at the expense of any constitutional due process. The Fifth Amendment guarantees that a person (you don’t even have to be a U.S. citizen to get this protection) cannot be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Of course, the proponents of a “war on terror” argue that in wars, the government doesn’t try every enemy soldier in a court of law before it attempts to kill them. However, since no war has been declared, even against the perpetrators of 9/11, that excuse shouldn’t apply.

“War on terror” advocates will then argue that that is only a technicality, because Congress did pass a resolution authorizing military action against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and those who harbored them.

But although al-Awlaki may be part of the group al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (a franchise of the main al-Qaeda group), has publicly called for the killing of Americans, and may even be linked to certain specific terrorist attacks in the United States, it has not been alleged by Obama administration officials that he planned, authorized, committed, or in any way assisted the 9/11 attacks or harbored those who perpetrated them.

Thus, killing him is not authorized by the congressional resolution.

His case merely highlights the fact that the administration has secret criteria for putting people, including U.S. citizens, on a hit list. Thus, al-Awlaki wouldn’t even have to be informed of how he ran afoul of the U.S. government before he gets whacked.

But why should Americans care about the rights of some guy who hates America and may even be a terrorist? Because if an American president can just declare anyone anywhere, including U.S. citizens, a danger to national security and kill him without any due process or oversight from the other branches of government, the rights of all Americans (and other persons) are in danger.

Even the District Court judge who dismissed a suit by Anwar’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki, who tried to argue against the Obama administration’s unconstrained authority to kill any American without due process, wondered why the administration required a judge’s warrant to target a U.S. citizen overseas using electronic surveillance but not to target that same citizen for death.

The judge dismissed the suit because he said the courts weren’t competent to make decisions concerning the “composition, training, equipping, and control of a military force” and that such issues should be left to the branches of government that are periodically subject to electoral accountability.

Perhaps so, but that is not the issue. The issue is whether Congress approved of a war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or al-Awlaki. It has not. Therefore, al-Awlaki should be treated as an alleged criminal and be given due process rights under the Constitution.

The courts clearly have a right to comment on this issue. They should prohibit the administration from having a secret kill list and require it to bring suspected terrorists to trial.

Although the death penalty at home is probably constitutional (the Fifth Amendment does speak of “capital” crimes), the fact that since the mid-1970s, 138 death row inmates were later exonerated does raise important questions about the government’s ability to competently and justly impose the ultimate sanction.

Given the government’s spotty record at identifying murderers, can we be confident that our president can competently identify terrorists and kill them — all the while in violation of the constitutional requirements of due process and checks and balances by other branches of government?

Since many of the prisoners at Guantanamo weren’t guilty of any crime, let alone terrorism, the answer to the last question is a resounding “no.” Thus, letting the president identify terrorists, using secret criteria, and whack them is dangerous to the Republic.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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3 comments on “The Slippery Slope of Assassinations

  1. Jon Shafer on said:

    I’m a semi-retired journalist. I posted the following on a black social site, RealDealRelationships dot com, as a reply on a discussion board about the political racism building up against Obama. My reply:

    Janice, I have to agree. It seems, more and more, that racism seems to be thriving in the current political atmosphere, such as the racial slur in the name of the Texas governor’s hunting club that caused such a stir. And then the denials, trying to pass it off, “We painted over it,” but nobody seems to know when.

    Yet I am getting more and more fed up with our foreign policy and continuing wars. Ordering assassinations without due process troubles me deeply. That is digging a political hole that doesn’t set well with me…and makes me wonder who the hell Obama’s advisers are? And to make matters worse, he puts a $10 million price on the head of an al Qaeda leader. This is insane, especially in light of Germany’s new push to find and prosecute yet more Nazi war criminals. At least Germany is using due process and the rule of law there to arrest, and charge, any remaining and aging Nazi war criminals they believe are still out there.

    We, on the other hand, seem to have completely abandoned due process in America. I made a post on that subject on Yahoo news that it is almost as if Obama had Dick Cheney on his staff advising him! This ordering of hit squads and assassinations, from some unsubstantiated bin Laden look-alike to Awlaki, is going to prove counter productive to U.S. foreign policy and, in the process, hurt Obama. I believe it already has.

    Come election time we’re going to be faced with crazy-azzed right-wing Republicans who will say, “Elect us, we can kill with much more deadly efficiency than Obama has, and beat al Qaeda!” Of course, they will conveniently ignore that WE (the CIA) helped create al Qaeda, and there are long CIA/al Qaeda connections, including the real bin Laden. We need a president who can forcefully respond to that kind of thinking, that this is America, and we don’t do things that way! We have a Constitution and rule of law, and the Geneva Convention by which we Americans conduct ourselves….in peace, and in war.

    And unless things change substantially from the Bush doctrine, and the police state society gleaned from the Patriot Act, Obama has given away those critical foundations under which we should be able to respond to this Republican bloodlust way of thinking for puting more troops in harm’s way, more war, more death in the spread of American power and empire. And then also fail to save our economic lives at home from parasitic capitalism, and from the political theft of needed domestic incentives for growth and jobs at home….so that they, the Republicans and their defense industry pals, can continue to fund their goddamned wars.

    And all of this only makes Obama more vulnerable to the race-baiters.

  2. rayriaz on said:

    Astonishly,Awlaki was a moderate muslin cleric. Awlaki served as an advisor to U.S.Government after 9/11 on ways to counter Muslim Extremism.Awlaki was gradually radicalised by Washington`s use of lies to justify military attacks on muslilm countries.He became a critic of the U.S. Government and told muslims that they did not have to passively accept American aggression and the right to resist.As a result Awlaki was demonized.Obama`s assertion that awlaki was some kind of high-level operative of Al-queda is merely an assertion.

  3. kristine on said:

    Who, indeed, are Obama’s advisors? What can he possibly be thinking to execute U.S. citizens? It shows what a dangerous man we have in the person of our President. His actions continue on a slope descending into fascism. A change is immanent.