Kevin Williamson of National Review comes out against the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki on the grounds that because he is an American citizen, he should not be targeted. Williamson calls Awlaki “an al-Qaeda goon, Islamist propagandist, and general bum,” and while he is all of those things, it is relevant to note that he is also a traitor and a commander in a war against the United States.
Williamson posits that “citizenship, even when applied to a Grade-A certified rat like Awlaki, presents an important demarcation, a bright-line distinction in our politics.” Drawing this bright line might make sense in a world where treason and/or war did not exist, but in the world we live in, it’s an unworkable idea. Targeting enemy commanders — as when US intelligence learned of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s travel plans and killed him in Operation Vengeance — is part of warfare. Awlaki has been involved in directing terror attacks against the US. Taking the most efficasious tactical response to the threat he presents off the table is not only a bad idea, it’s inconceivable in practice — in the unlikely event that the ACLU succeeds in its lawsuit to declare Awlaki off-limits for targeting, the inevitable executive response will be to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the ruling. Hardly a victory for the rule of law.
All that said, I share Williamson’s discomfort with a state of affairs where the good faith and competence of the executive is all that prevents an innocent American citizen from being targeted for assassination on a battlefield that spans the world, and there should probably be a statutory check on Presidential authority that requires authorization by an independent body, most likely composed of Article III judges with lifetime tenure. You might think of it as an assassination warrant, which, like an arrest warrant, would serve as a prophylactic against the abuse of executive power. But before we can impose such checks on executive power, we must first acknowledge that, given that American al-Qaeda recruits constitute a very real threat, the troubling power in question is, in fact, necessary.