Amy Davidson writes: “One of the problems is, once the drone program is so public, and one American is caught up, people don’t know much about this one ‘American citizen’ — so called,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, in her questioning of John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee for C.I.A. director, on Thursday. (John Cassidy has more on the hearing.) She was referring to Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen, in 2011, and was a “so-called” American because he was an American, born in New Mexico. “They don’t know what he’s been doing,” Feinstein continued. “They don’t know the incitement he has stirred up. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about Mr. Awlaki and what he’s been doing.”
Brennan demurred at first, since the question was about an “operation.” Feinstein jumped in:
See, that’s the problem. When people hear “American,” they think someone who’s upstanding. And this man was not upstanding by a long shot.
FEINSTEIN: And maybe you cannot discuss it here, but I’ve read enough to know that he was a real problem.
Brennan agreed, saying that al-Awlaki “was intimately involved in activities that were designed to kill innocent men, women, and children, mostly Americans. He was not just a propagandist.” (He neglected to mention that al-Awlaki’s American teen-age son was also killed, in a separate strike.) Feinstein then led him through a number of incidents; in some cases, Brennan agreed that al-Awlaki was an organizer, and in others he spoke obliquely about “inspiring” and “inciting individuals.” Feinstein summed up the exchange with what may have been the most disturbing line in the three-hour hearing, worse, even, than the waterboarding joke that Senator Burr told a few minutes later:
“And, so, Mr. Awlaki is not an American citizen by where anyone in America would be proud.”
“Proud,” “upstanding,” “so-called American” — is this the basis on which the Senate is judging fundamental questions of American rights and due process?
It’s natural and appropriate the Americans should be concerned that the U.S. president has decided that he can at his discretion deprive U.S. citizens of their right to due process, but in considering the assassination of Anwar al Awlaki, we should not be alarmed merely because he was an American. Much more significant, it seems to me, is why he was killed.
At the time of his death, U.S. officials described Awlaki as an operational leader of al Qaeda, yet have never supported this claim with any evidence. Lack of evidence presumably explains why he was never indicted and never placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
What Awlaki was guilty of was being a charismatic preacher, capable of exerting great influence and quite possibly inspiring others to engage in acts of terrorism. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported:
A businessman in [Yemen’s capital,] San’a said he met the cleric two years ago, while Mr. Awlaki was hunting for real estate in the capital. The businessman said he was immediately struck by the charisma of the cleric. “It was like talking to [Bill] Clinton,” he said. “You felt like he understood everything about you.”
Awlaki represented a national security nightmare: a Bin Laden with an American accent. He was feared much less for what he had done than for what he might become.
The idea that he was killed because he posed some kind of imminent threat is an idea that can only be accepted on blind faith. What the preponderance of evidence shows is that this was a political assassination.
When the U.S. government starts executing people for political crimes, the nationality of those being killed should really be the least among our concerns.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks was arrested rather than being summarily executed. No doubt at the time he was regarded as being much more valuable alive than dead. The same can’t be said of Awlaki. Indeed, the difficulties the Obama administration might have faced imprisoning him and attempting to put him on trial, strongly suggest that he was killed as a matter of convenience. He was a problem that needed to be removed — snuffed out — and the choice to do that, turned the position of the president into that of a mobster.