Opinion Brief

Leaked: The legal case for killing Anwar al-Awlaki

Does the Obama administration's secret memo adequately defend the decision to launch a lethal drone strike against a U.S. citizen?

A secret Obama administration legal memo cleared the way for the killing of radical, U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, declaring that it would be legal for the U.S. to kill him despite an executive order banning assassinations, according to a report in The New York Times. The "crucial" legal analysis, written a year before the drone strike that killed Awlaki last month, said the killing would only be justified if Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, could not be taken alive. Does this 50-page memo settle the debate over the legality of Awlaki's killing?

No. The government needs to defend its actions openly: "As American citizens we have a right to know when our own government believes it may execute us without a trial," says David Cole at The New York Review of Books. Everybody knows war isn't pretty, but "leaked accounts to The New York Times are no substitute" for openness. "As long as the Obama administration insists on the power to kill the people it was elected to represent — and to do so in secret, on the basis of secret legal memos — can we really claim that we live in a democracy?""Killing citizens in secret"

Actually, the memo is quite comforting: After the way the Bush administration's "torture memos" tossed legal precedent out the window, says Bill Nelligan at Carlisle Policy Forum, it is encouraging to see how "careful and cautious" Obama's legal minds are. The authors of the memo outlined several obstacles to the killing of an American, "explaining how each was overruled in this specific instance." That "gives me a great deal of optimism about the rule of law under this president.""A secret memo, a secret panel, a novel process"

And the memo was not even necessary: The "caterwauling" over Awlaki's death is silly, says Don Surber at the Charleston, W.V., Daily Mail. The man wasn't "hiding" in Yemen. He had lived there nearly his entire life and was at war with the U.S. It shouldn't take an official memo for people to realize that we don't owe an enemy leader with whom we're at war the niceties of capture and a public trial. "He was not serious about his 'citizenship' — why should we be?""NYT's war on the war on terrorism"

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