A federal judge made a serious error recently in throwing out an important case about whether the U.S. government can kill U.S. citizens abroad without due process.
Three U.S. citizens (Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and Samir Khan) were executed in U.S. drone strikes in Yemen in 2011. Their families brought a lawsuit to obtain justice.
The government’s case against Anwar al-Awlaki was that he posed an “imminent threat” to the United States, and that it was impossible to capture him, so extrajudicial assassination was necessary. But contrary to the claim that capturing him was not possible, al-Awlaki’s hosts in southern Yemen were reportedly willing to hand him over to Yemeni authorities if a fair trial could be guaranteed. Yet, the Obama administration chose to go ahead with the strike.
In a 16-page white paper leaked to NBC News, the Obama administration argued that “clear evidence” of a “specific attack” was not needed and that if a “high-level official” drew the conclusion that an individual was an “operational leader of al-Qaida or an associated force,” that was enough to kill the person.
In short, without any actual proof of a plot (which would make a person an imminent threat), the government has determined it can mete out the ultimate punishment — death.
On April 4, Judge Rosemary Collyer threw out the lawsuit even while she noted that the case raised serious constitutional issues. Troublingly, she held that government officials “must be trusted and expected to act in accordance with the U.S. Constitution when they intentionally target a U.S. citizen abroad at the direction of the president and with the concurrence of Congress.”
Why should we blindly trust our leaders? If in fact they had evidence against al-Awlaki, should they not have provided it in court?
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this case is no government official will be held accountable for the murder of the 16-year-old Abdulrahman. A U.S. drone killed the younger al-Awlaki two weeks after a CIA drone killed his father and Samir Khan, who was the editor of a magazine sympathetic to al-Qaida.
Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was guilty of no crime.
Collyer’s ruling, in effect, lets the government get away with the murder of U.S. citizens. Further, by denying justice to the families, it perpetuates a legal system that treats Muslim-Americans unfairly.
This ruling is a disaster, and the extrajudicial killing of Americans is a disgrace.