If George W. Bush had told us that the “war on terror” gave him the right to execute an American citizen overseas with a missile fired from a drone aircraft, without due process or judicial review, I'd have gone ballistic. It makes no difference that the president making this chilling claim is Barack Obama. What's wrong is wrong.
The moral and ethical questions posed by the advent of drone warfare — which amounts to assassination by remote control — are painfully complex. We had better start working out some answers because, as an administration spokesman told me recently, drone attacks are “the new normal” in the ongoing struggle against terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.
But one of the few bright lines we can and should recognize is that in the exceedingly rare instances when a U.S. citizen may be targeted, our government bears a special burden.
The Obama administration acknowledged as much in a secret Justice Department “white paper” obtained this week by NBC News. The document laid out a legal argument that the president, without oversight, may order a “lethal operation” against a citizen who is known to be a “senior operational leader” of al-Qaida or an affiliated group.
This is not an academic question. In 2011, a CIA drone attack in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who had become a leading figure in the terrorist franchise known as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Two weeks later, another drone attack killed Awlaki's 16-year-old son.
Awlaki was believed to have been directly involved in the near-miss “Underwear Bomber” plot to down a civilian airliner on Christmas Day 2009, as well as the planting of two bombs — fortunately, discovered before they could explode — on Chicago-bound cargo planes in 2010. Perpetrators of several other attacks cited Awlaki's fiery sermons and, in some cases, his personal messages as their inspiration.