OpinionEditorial
Editorial

Officially, why it was OK for the U.S. government to kill Anwar Awlaki

EditorialsOpinionCourts and the JudiciaryJustice SystemU.S. Department of JusticeAl-QaedaU.S. Congress
Better late than never, the Justice Dept. memo on killing Anwar Awlaki
Why we killed Anwar Awlaki: the rationale is still too vague

Better late than never, the American public has been provided with a redacted version of a Justice Department memo offering a legal rationale for the targeting of Anwar Awlaki, the U.S.-born Al Qaeda figure who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. The document was made public Monday after the Obama administration decided not to appeal a court order that it be disclosed.

The basic legal rationale for targeting Awlaki has long been known. In fact, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the memo's release precisely because so much of the argument has seeped into the public domain as the result of speeches by administration officials and the publication last year of a 16-page "white paper." Still, the release of the actual 2010 memo prepared by Justice Department official David Barron (now a federal judge) is an important, if overdue, exercise in transparency.

Is the memo persuasive? Only to a limited degree. It plausibly concludes that, under the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress after 9/11, the military or CIA may target a U.S. citizen abroad who has joined the enemy and whose activities pose a "continued and imminent" threat to Americans. But the memo doesn't precisely define "imminent," and other statements by administration officials suggest that they are employing an ominously elastic interpretation of that term. For example, the white paper said that the government may target an American for death even in the absence of "clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons or interests will take place in the immediate future."

Then there is the question of whether the government should try to capture a U.S. citizen suspected of terrorism instead of killing him. The Barron memo approves of assassination when capture is not impossible but merely "infeasible." That is too vague a standard.

The version of the memo released by the appeals court Monday is missing several pages that apparently contain evidence that Awlaki had ceased being merely a propagandist for Al Qaeda and had participated in planning attacks. Now as before the release of the memo, Americans must take it on faith that Awlaki had to be killed.

That isn't satisfactory. When Awlaki was killed, this page argued that if the U.S. was going to engage in state-sponsored assassination of U.S. citizens, at the minimum it must explain in detail why someone has been targeted. Welcome as the release of the Barron memo is, it doesn't meet that standard.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
EditorialsOpinionCourts and the JudiciaryJustice SystemU.S. Department of JusticeAl-QaedaU.S. Congress
  • McManus: Who reviews the U.S. 'kill list'?
    McManus: Who reviews the U.S. 'kill list'?

    There has been remarkably little public debate in the U.S. about drone strikes, which have killed at least 1,300 people in Pakistan alone since President Obama came to office.

  • Jerry Brown for governor
    Jerry Brown for governor

    Forty years have passed since Californians first elected as their governor a very young and quirkily charismatic Jerry Brown. Back then, voters made a conscious break from the past, choosing a 36-year-old Democrat with floppy collars and a philosophical bent to succeed two-term Republican...

  • The good news about offshore oil rigs
    The good news about offshore oil rigs

    Never let it be said that Mother Nature doesn't appreciate irony. A new study led by researchers at Occidental College and UC Santa Barbara has found that the oil platforms dotting the California coast are fantastic for sea life.

  • There's a better way to do immigration reform
    There's a better way to do immigration reform

    Immigration is the definitive wedge issue in American politics, but it doesn't have to be. When the Senate's Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act failed to pass the House this year, it was the third such failure of comprehensive reform in a decade....

  • British war brides faced own battles during 1940s
    British war brides faced own battles during 1940s

    America's attitudes toward immigration have always been complicated. Influenced by world events, the U.S. embraces some immigrants and demonizes others, and it can be difficult to understand the logic. Take the story of 70,000 would-be immigrants from Britain during the 1940s who all...

  • Calm down, America, Ebola isn't about to kill us all
    Calm down, America, Ebola isn't about to kill us all

    A Texas university refuses to accept students from Nigeria, where there were a couple dozen Ebola cases before the disease was quickly stopped. Louisiana refuses to allow incinerated trash from the treatment of Texas' first Ebola victim, Thomas Eric Duncan, into its landfills, as though...

  • Can the U.S. healthcare system do as well against Ebola as Nigeria's just did?
    Can the U.S. healthcare system do as well against Ebola as Nigeria's just did?

    Two. That’s the total number of known Ebola cases in the United States today — the two infected nurses from Dallas’ Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, Nina Pham and Amber Vincent.

  • Catholics, Africans, gays and the race card
    Catholics, Africans, gays and the race card

    The Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops that ended over the weekend was a remarkable exercise in transparency, with liberal and conservative prelates openly sparring over whether the church should adopt a more welcoming approach to gays and to Catholics who divorced and remarried.

Comments
Loading