Human Rights

Obama Administration Authorizes CIA to Kill U.S. Citizen

The White House has taken the unprecedented step of authorizing the CIA to kill a U.S. citizen suspected of having ties to the Christmas Day bomber.

The White House has taken the unprecedented step of authorizing the CIA to kill a U.S. citizen suspected of having ties to a Nigerian man who attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner last Christmas.

It is believed that Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim Cleric, who lives in Yemen, is the first U.S. citizen the CIA has been sanctioned to target for assassination under a policy implemented by the Bush administration that has since been embraced by the Obama administration.

George W. Bush signed aclassified intelligence findingthat authorized the CIA and the military after 9/11 to target and kill Americans abroad who were suspected of carrying out terrorist plots against the United States or U.S. interests and posed an imminent threat.

Former government officials insisted that no Americans were ever placed on the Bush-era list. In November 2002, however, a CIA Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles targeted a car driving through the desert in Yemen. The strike killed six alleged al-Qaeda operatives, one of whom was an American citizen, Kamal Derwish, who the CIA knew was in the car along with Abu Ali al-Harithi, one of the planners of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 and the CIA's target.

Derwish was associated with an alleged terrorist cell in a Buffalo, New York, suburb known as the Lackawanna Six. Dick Cheney had pressured George W. Bush and other top administration officials to deploy U.S. soldiers to the arrest the suspected terrorists in violation of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which generally prohibits the armed forces from acting in a law enforcement capacity.

Awlaki, 38, had previously been placed on a separate, top-secret assassination list maintained by the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which means he's now a military and CIA target.

An unnamed U.S. official told The Washington Post Awlaki "recently became an operational figure for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," where Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was allegedly radicalized.

"He's working actively to kill Americans, so it's both lawful and sensible to try to stop him," the unnamed U.S. official told the Post. Another U.S. official who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity said Awlaki is in "everybody's sights."

An unnamed U.S. official told The New York Times, "the danger Awlaki poses to [the United States] is no longer confined to words. He's gotten involved in plots."

"The United States works, exactly as the American people expect, to overcome threats to their security, and this individual -- through his own actions -- has become one. Awlaki knows what he's done, and he knows he won't be met with handshakes and flowers. None of this should surprise anyone," the U.S. official said.

But the intelligence on Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and was an imam at mosques in several U.S. cities before returning to Yemen in 2004, is far from a slam dunk. Intelligence agencies had previously considered him to be nothing more than a cleric with radical views about Islam whose passionate sermons stoked anti-American sentiment.

The assessment changed after Army Maj. Nidal Hassan, a psychiatrist, allegedly shot and killed 12 soldiers and one civilian at Fort Hood in Texas last November. Hassan had communicated with Awlaki via email, law enforcement authorities said, but he isn't suspected of planning the massacre.

A month later, after Abdulmutallab's failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines jetliner, US intelligence officials revealed the Nigerian was a student of Awlaki's in Yemen, but the cleric denied he ordered the attack. The Los Angeles Times then reportedin January that the CIA was working to add Awlaki to a list of about two dozen people targeted for assassination.

Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley said in February, "it is one thing to kill an American in the course of a terrorist act or to prevent an imminent attack. It is quite another thing to kill someone suspected of terrorism without a trial. That would amount to the assassination of a citizen."

"As reaffirmed in cases like Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1 (1957), American citizens have the same protections regardless of whether they are without or outside of the country," Turley said. "In that case, two American women who murdered their husbands on American military bases abroad were given the same protections under the Fifth Amendment regardless of the fact that they were located and committed the crimes abroad. If a president can kill U.S. citizens abroad, why not within the United States? What is the limiting principle beyond the practicalities?"

According to The Los Angeles Times, "new targets are drafted by analysts in the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Center. Former officials said analysts typically submit several new names each month to high-level officials, including the CIA general counsel and sometimes Director Leon E. Panetta."

The New York Times noted that as a general principle, international law permits the use of lethal force against individuals and groups that pose an imminent threat to a country, and officials said that was the standard used in adding names to the list of targets.

Moreover, according to The New York Times, "Congress approved the use of military force against Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. People on the target list are considered to be military enemies of the United States and therefore not subject to the ban on political assassination first approved by President Gerald R. Ford."

Rep. Jane Harman, the powerful California Democrat who chairs the House of Representatives Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, told Reuters Tuesday that Awlaki is "probably the person, the terrorist, who would be terrorist No. 1 in terms of threat against us."

Former President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and numerous officials from the previous administration made near identical claims about the importance of Abu Zubaydah, the high-value detainee who was alleged to be the No.2 person in al-Qaeda and one of the planners of 9/11.

As Truthout first reported last week, the government no longer contends Zubaydah, who was brutally tortured, was an "official" member of al-Qaeda nor had prior knowledge of or was involved in the planning of 9/11 as Bush, Cheney, and others asserted.

Harman conceded that Awlaki's US citizenship "certainly complicated" his placement on a list of approved assassination targets. Still, she said President Barack Obama "made very clear that people, including Americans who are trying to attack our country, are people we will definitely pursue ... are targets of the United States."

Dennis Blair, the director of National Intelligence, admitted at a House Intelligence Committee hearing in February that the CIA can assassinate Americans abroad suspected of being involved in terrorism.

"If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that," Blair said, adding that the criteria to be targeted for assassination includes "whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans."

"Those are the factors involved," Blair said. "We don't target people for free speech. We target them for taking action that threatens Americans or has resulted in it."

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