Anwar al-Awlaki certainly sounds like a nasty piece of work.
The 38-year-old Muslim cleric is said to be a top operative and recruiter for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist organization's branch in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
He has been linked with at least four of the 9/11 hijackers, Christmas Day underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Major Nidal Malik Hassan, accused of killing 13 people in a murder rampage at Fort Hood.
On his Web site he has urged Muslims to journey to Iraq to kill American soldiers and it is said he is actively seeking terrorists to carry out plots aimed at the United States and Americans abroad.
It comes as no surprise then that the United States is going to try to kill him — except for one thing. Al-Awlaki is an American, born in New Mexico, educated at U.S. universities and the one-time imam of mosques in Denver, San Diego and the Washington, D.C., area.
The White House National Security Council earlier this year approved his assassination, assuming he can't be captured. Al-Awalaki has been in Yemen, where his father was once agriculture minister, since 2004 and in hiding since early 2009. He is believed to be under the protection of the tribe from which his family came.
The Constitution is quite clear that no American shall be deprived of life without due process of law. There is a serious question whether secret deliberations by the NSC could be considered due process.
Under international law, U.S. action could be justified as countering an imminent threat and al-Awlaki seems intent on becoming just that. He is also vulnerable under Congress' post-9/11 approval of the use of military force against al-Qaida. As a member of a hostile military, he is exempt from the longstanding ban on political assassinations by U.S. agencies.
U.S. government officials told the New York Times it is extremely rare, if not unprecedented, for an American to be targeted for killing. It can be argued that al-Awlaki sacrificed his rights as an American when he in effect took up arms against his country. But you don't have to be a civil liberties zealot to be deeply uncomfortable with this assertion of executive power.
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