Unlike the secretive U.S. airstrikes that have killed hundreds of foreigners in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, this case involved an American teenager. He was killed by the U.S. military in a country with which Washington is not at war.
Officials throughout the U.S. government, however, have refused to answer questions for the record about how or why Awlaki was killed Oct. 14 in a remote part of Yemen, along with eight other people.
The Obama administration has asserted the right to launch attacks against al-Qaeda members anywhere in the world, saying there is no difference between a battlefield in Afghanistan and a suspected terrorist hideout in Yemen or Somalia.
But when U.S. forces kill civilians or operations go awry in traditional war zones such as Afghanistan or Iraq, the military routinely conducts official investigations. The results are often declassified and released as public records.
“If the government is going to be firing Predator missiles at American citizens, surely the American public has a right to know who’s being targeted, and why,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The official silence about the death of the American teenager contrasts with the Obama administration’s eagerness to trumpet another airstrike in Yemen two weeks earlier. In that case, armed drones controlled by the CIA killed the teen’s father, Anwar al-Awlaki, a dual Yemeni-American citizen who worked as a propagandist for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
U.S. and Yemeni counterterrorism officials had been searching for the elder Awlaki for years, describing him as a dangerous terrorist who posed a direct threat to the United States.
“The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al-Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate,” Obama said hours after the Sept. 30 airstrike.
“This country is much safer as a result of the loss of Awlaki,” said Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.
“I’m glad they did it,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
In the case of Awlaki’s son, however, U.S. officials have been willing to talk only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Two U.S. officials said the intended target of the Oct. 14 airstrike was Ibrahim al-Banna, an Egyptian who was a senior operative in Yemen’s al-Qaeda affiliate.
Obama administration lawyers have said the military and CIA can target suspected terrorists outside of war zones only if they represent a direct threat to U.S. interests. But the criteria they use remain shrouded in mystery. There is no external review by the courts.