I say “reportedly” because the Obama administration never charged Awlaki with any crime and has never even acknowledged that it sent the drone that killed him. There is no doubt that the man was killed by a drone. That fact has been reported on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers. Obama himself held a news conference to announce that Awlaki “was killed,” but he very consciously used the passive voice, not admitting any U.S. responsibility.
The administration initially treated the drone killing program as covert, refusing to speak about it. Over time, various Obama administration officials have given public speeches defending the legality of targeted killing in general. But the administration has not admitted killing anyone specific outside Afghanistan with a drone.
The unacknowledged killing of foreign nationals during wartime is disturbing enough, though there may be circumstances in which it is warranted. But in our democracy, it can never be permissible for the president to identify an American citizen for extinction, place him on a “kill list,” authorize a CIA agent or military officer to kill him — and then refuse to admit that it was done. Whether the killing is legal or not, accountability is impossible absent a public statement of responsibility for the act.
Indeed, the Obama administration is opposing lawsuits that challenge Awlaki’s killing and seek disclosure of the documents related to it, in part on the grounds that its role in the killing has never been, and cannot be, acknowledged. If a government of the people and under law means anything, it must mean that the government cannot kill its people in secret and then avoid legal scrutiny by disavowing responsibility.
Administration insiders have hinted that Washington cannot admit that it is directing the drones, even if the world knows it is doing so, because other countries have consented to drone strikes in their territory only on the condition that they go officially unacknowledged. Using lethal force inside another nation’s borders, absent that nation’s consent, is generally a violation of international law, so there is good reason to seek consent. But can an agreement with a foreign country override the president’s constitutional obligation to take American lives only in a publicly acknowledged and legally accountable way?
Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, John Brennan, has put it well: “I think the rule should be that if we’re going to take actions overseas that result in the deaths of people, the United States should take responsibility for that,” he said last fall.
So, President Obama, did you or did you not kill Anwar al-Awlaki?
Read more from Outlook:
Five myths about Obama’s drone war
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