Earlier today, a U.S. drone strike 90 miles east of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, set a new precedent for executive power in Washington. Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric with American citizenship, was killed by a hellfire missile directed at his caravan from an unmanned CIA aircraft. In addition, Samir Khan—fellow American and editor for a Jihadist newsmagazine—was also killed. This marks what may be the first deliberate assassination of an American national authorized by a U.S. president. In Janurary of last year, news outlets reported the addition of four Americans, including Anwar al-Awlaki, to a CIA hit list targeting terrorists overseas. Awlaki was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents in 1971 and attended university in the United States. A radical preacher known for his sermons against the United States, Awlaki worked in San Diego and Great Britain before relocating to Yemen in 2004. He also worked in Virginia , where the AP reported,
he was known for his “interfaith outreach, civic engagement, and tolerance” when he served as imam at Dar al-Hijrah from January 2001 to April 2002. [The mosque] said he did not begin preaching violence until later, after he was arrested and allegedly tortured in Yemen.The cleric was accused of inspiring several attacks, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, last year’s attempted Times Square car bomb, and the botched underwear bombing on Northwest Flight 253. Amounting to an extra-judicial killing, today’s attack circumvented Americans’ expected legal right to defense and habeas corpus. When Awlaki’s father sought a court order overriding Obama’s authorization, the Department of Justice denied his request, arguing that the administration’s decision fell under “state secrets” and was thus precluded from judicial review. Perhaps the clearest evidence of Obama’s hawkish foreign policy, the assassination reveals not only the continuation of controversial Bush-era procedures, but the expansion of executive power to bypass legal constraints meant to ensure the safeguarding of democratic principles. In an article last month for In These Times, Glenn Greenwald broke down Obama’s security policy, underscoring significant continuities with the Bush Administration: Under Obama, warrantless eavesdropping, indefinite detention, and the suspension of habeas corpus have survived intact. Furthermore, the administration has actively criminalized whistleblowers (a significant insult to investigative journalism) and now has killed U.S. citizens with no legal representation. Left-wing opposition to Bush’s security policies helped propel Democrats to power in 2008 by energizing their voter base. Since assuming office, Obama’s campaign promises have proved to be hot air, as his vows to close Guantanamo and to reverse the reputation-damaging practices of his predecessor melted beneath the hot gaze of political reality. Incredibly, the assassination has produced little dissent. Obama, elected on a progressive platform, obscures the implications that these policies pose. As Greenwald writes: “Having a Democratic president adopt these national security policies … has converted them from controversy into bipartisan consensus.” In pursuit of immunity from right-wing attacks on his defense credentials, Obama has not only done a disservice to the moral and legal conception of the United States, but to public debate as well. Greenwald writes, “It is disagreement between the two parties that defines what journalists believe is worthy of conversation.” If that is the case, then the precedent Obama set today is unlikely to be questioned by major news outlets, depriving the American public of a conversation well worth having.
Patrick Glennon is a writer and musician living in Chicago. He received his B.A. in History from Skidmore College and currently works as Communications Manager for the Michael Forti for Cook County Court campaign and as the web intern at In These Times.