Stephen Coll, Awlaki, and Presidential Power

This is a fascinating scenario for pondering Christian ethics and American law and rights. Stephen Coll, at The New Yorker, is on the side of those who think the President has extended his power too much and sets a precedent for further instances.

What do you think? Legal? Constitutional? Right?

On September 30, 2011, in a northern province of Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and a senior figure in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, finished his breakfast and walked with several companions to vehicles parked nearby. Before he could drive away, a missile fired from a drone operated by the Central Intelligence Agency struck the group and killed Awlaki, as well as a second American citizen, of Pakistani origin, whom the drone operators did not realize was present.

President Barack Obama had personally authorized the killing. “I want Awlaki,” he is said to have told his advisers at one point. “Don’t let up on him.” The President’s bracing words about a fellow American are reported in “Kill or Capture,” a recent and important book on the Obama Administration’s detention and targeted-killing programs, by Daniel Klaidman, a former deputy editor of Newsweek.

With those words attributed to Obama, Klaidman has reported what would appear to be the first instance in American history of a sitting President speaking of his intent to kill a particular U.S. citizen without that citizen having been charged formally with a crime or convicted at trial.

The due-process clause of the Fifth Amendment prohibits “any person” from being deprived of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” Obama authorized the termination of Awlaki’s life after he concluded that the boastful, mass-murder-plotting cleric had, in effect, forfeited constitutional protection by waging war against the United States and actively planning to kill Americans. Obama also believed that the Administration’s secret process establishing Awlaki’s guilt provided adequate safeguards against mistake or abuse—all in all, enough “due process of law” to take his life.

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  • donsands

    I was in Home Depot Saturday, and the man at the register was not born in America. I asked him, “Where are you from?” He said to me, “Where do you think I am from?”
    I guessed India.
    He said, “Close. I am from Pakistan.”

    We then had quite a pleasant conversation about different things, and Barak Obama. He surely didn’t seem to like the President.
    The drone killing was surely wrong.
    Too much authority in the Whitehouse. Even back with JFK,wom I feel was a great leader, but with not enough checks and balances.

    Thoe are my thoughts.

    Have a blessed day in our King’s sovereign authority and grace and truth. Jesus truly does reign, and that’s a comforting thought. What a righteous holy and merciful King of kings who loves His own, and we love Him, and follow Him.

  • Coll has been writing a lot of important stuff on this in New York Review of Books as well and a number of books recently published explore the implications of Obama’s policy. It is a big set of issues to consider and it is high time that we start thinking about them.

  • JoeyS

    I think he has extended his reach a bit far. If a person is in the middle of a violent crime then Habeas Corpus can be suspended but in an instance of head-hunting a US citizen should have the right to a trial. Lincoln suspended HC during the civil war (ex parte Milligan), and I think he went too far as well. Bush may have done so with Guantanamo Bay. This is not unique to Obama but I fear that if we allow this behavior we are chipping away at some of our country’s most important virtues.

  • Robin

    I think “right” would be the easiest of the 3 to cover, since “legal” and “constitutional” are definitely on shaky ground.

    I’m not saying it definitely was “right” but the man had declared open war on America and was actively involved in the plotting of terrorist attacks against America. If I recall correctly the other American citizen killed was his son, who was also actively involved in terrorism. From an ethical point-of-view, taking out Awlaki and his son was roughly equivalent to taking out bin Laden and family members involved in the terrorism business.

    If this would have been ethical had the target been bin Laden, then it was ethical given the actual target.

    However, the legal and constitutional considerations are very different and much harder to justify. Even if it was the right thing to do, we have hurdles to built in place to prevent this type of thing. Some murderers walk because we require juries to reach unanimous verdicts. Sometimes legl, constitutional, and right don’t overlap that well.

  • scotmcknight

    Robin, I’m with you on the legal and constitutional points of view. On “right,” here I think we have to define “right” by the gospel and not by whether or not Bin Laden is analogous.

  • Aaron S

    Robin, did you mean Obama or Osama Bin Ladin? I hope it was the latter.

    In ethical terms, I think this underscores how difficult it is to be a follower of Jesus and to hold that kind of power. Government has the sword, but as a Christian, I could never use it. I am glad to stay away from the type of power.

  • Aaron S

    Dr. McKnight, please delete this and the above comment. I worry it came across as a little harsh towards Robin, and she had fixed the typo by the time I posted. Thank you, and I apologize for the tone.

  • donsands

    “Government has the sword, but as a Christian, I could never use it.”-aARON

    How about when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. If we see our children going to be killed, don’t we have the “right” to go and protect them with the sword, so to speak? I hope I would have the courage to fight against those who would harm my children, or grand-children.

  • P.

    Interesting points. I do support the President’s actions, but I’ve never thought about the Constitutionality issues when the subject is an American citizen.

  • DRT

    No, it is not right.

    And I think that we should have a more democratic process for allowing this type of behavior. This strikes me a little, or perhaps a lot, too close to absolute power.

  • Andy

    I’m not up with the finer details of the constitutionality of what the president may have ordered, but I’m wondering whether the idea of the president being charged with defending the country from those who would seek its harm isn’t something he should do with whatever tools available. Frankly, if you are an american citizen and declare war on it, you’d be likely found guilty of treason. Would an open admission as such constitute a confession that could be used by a tribunal to decide that in your absence you could be sentenced to death?

    The wisdom of solomon is definitely needed to walk the line of being a good leader.

  • Mike M

    Extra-judicial killings and “special renditions” are just plain wrong and Unconstitutional. Nowhere do our laws say that a president can kill an American citizen without a fair trial. Stopping a car and searching it because of exigiency is NOT the same in anyone’s book as protecting the country in case of “emergencies.”
    BTW: Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941 in response to Roosevelt’s oil embargo against them 8 months earlier. What would the US do if Saudi Arabia refused to send us oil th Tyat long?

  • The reality is that a bipartisan consensus has for decades operated as if the security concerns of our current age make the constitution’s limits outdated–we have not conducted a war under the constitutional method since WW2 and that is a far more severe violation of the constitution than Obama’s extrajudicial killings. What Obama’s actions should do is cause us to ask more deeply if our constitution really is irrelevant to today’s security needs. I don’t think it is, but the fact that we have faught war after war against the clear guidelines of the constitution’s requirement of Congress to approve a declaration of war demonstrates that most of our political and military elite don’t give a rip about what the Constitution says when it comes to “fighting our enemies”. It is a crock to me that with the exception of the Ron Puals of the world, virtually no “conservatives” who unendingly proclaim their fealty to a strict reading of the Constitution ever raise their voice to declare the clear teaching of that document in terms of declaring wars, so we shouldn’t expect them to raise their voice against the assassination of American citizens.

  • The wild west paradigm, which is to solve every problem with a gun, seems to permeate american life at all levels.

  • When I was doing my masters in International Relations in the late-90s, I suggested to my peers that the end of the Cold War offered an opportunity to look again at the Constitutions limits on Executive Power and to really limit the adventursome “Imperial Presidency”. I was basically laughed at and viewed as some sort of naïve isolationist by people on both the Left and Right. Theirs is the perspective that shapes the use of Executive Power regardless of the political party in power. To understand how entrenched this perspective is, read Andrew Bacevich’s book Washington Rules.

  • To Robin’s point about Alwaki’s death being justified by the same moral logic that justified killing bin Laden, I say no way. To say that is to dramatically understate the historical significance of bin Laden in the region and the world. Alwaki is nowhere near the mastermind of terrorist ambitions on the scale of al Qaeda in the 90s and 2000s. And furthermore, bin Laden had actually been convicted in absentia for his crimes in a public court. There was mountains of evidence gathered tying him to nuimerous bombings beyond 9-11. It is not right to compare the two morally, or to compare the painstaking work done to investigate bin Laden. Obama is leaping into dangerous territory and establishing a precedent that is significant.

  • donsands

    “Japan attacked Pearl Harbor”-Mike

    So you think it was a good thing?

  • Robin


    If you are still on here. Would you care to discuss the difference between a “Declaration of War” and the House and Senate authorizing Presidential actions.

    So, in the first gulf war there was no “declaration” but there was a joint resolution in congress. I assume the joint resolution still had to have a majority in both houses. What, other than its name, would distinguish it from a Declaration? Does a declaration require a supermajority? Does it require more detail. At a practical level how would a declaration differ from a congressional resolution?

  • Steve Clem

    It’s not about the guilt of Awlaki, or whether he deserved Obama’s death sentence. It’s about the frightening precedent of a president declaring himself the judge, jury, and executioner of a U.S. citizen. If the president is justified in executing a citizen outside of the country, regardless of his crimes, what’s to prevent him from picking and choosing those deserving of death inside the country? Furthermore, what’s to prevent this all-powerful president from using this power against his political enemies? It’s all too easy to paint your political enemies as enemies of the state.

  • Steve Clem

    And by the way, the U.S. oil embargo against Japan was in response to the ruthless Japanese invasion of China. To imply the embargo caused or somehow justified the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is a deliberate misreading of history.

  • Mike M

    Not. Roosevelt knew that an oil embargo would throw us into war as he promised his fellow rich-beyond-measure friend Winston Churchill. It’s not coincidence that Winston visited his good friend before the embargo. BTW: on every trip he made to the US, Churchill only stayed with the 1% like Roosevelt & Hearst. Using the “helping the Chinese” is a popular and acceptable excuse. Yes, excuse. Yes, “acceptable” even 2 or 3 generations later.

  • Great question, Robin. Superficially they seem the same, but in reality there is a vast difference, a difference rooted in the Constitutional Order of Three Branches. Three differences to briefly note:
    1) To declare war is to commit the country to victory, and to commit the person voting for the declaration, to victory. It is not simply approving a decision to commit troops to an initial stage. This has enormous political implications, implications the Founders knew well. When you make a vote toi declare war, you are making a commitment to the specific cause and judging it as worthy of the blood and treasure necessary to its fullfillment. Ajoint resolution is a poltically expedient vote, easily reworked into criticism and opposition to the president, as seen in the second Iraq War when Kerry voted for it, and then campaigned against it. This kind of division is terribly unhealthy and is at least partially responsible for the fact that we have not had a clear victory at war since WW2. Our Founders knew well the temptation to hastily commit other people’s children to war and made it incumbent upon those who vote for it to be “all in”.
    2) The decision to make the Legislative Branch responsilble for declaring war is not to be understated. This is the Branch most accountable to the people and the Branch viewed by the Founders as most vital to the health of democracy and to the prevention of tyranny at the hands of military power. Our Founders were gravely afraid of standing armies and the potential destructiveness that such military power could bring to a constititutional order. What Eisenhower decried as the “military-industrial complex” is precisely what the Founders feared and one of their prescriptions for its prevention was to place war-making powers in the hands ot the Legislative Branch.
    3) The fig leaf of congressional authorization is explicitly a way to avoid Legislative accountability and is therefore in direct contradicition to the Constititutional order. Not only have we seen it become a prescription for disunity, but it has also empowered the Executive to engage in vast military operations that were never approved–bombing Laos, invading Grenada, drone warfare, Libya operations, Korean War, invasion of Panama, etc. The precise result the Founders feared–namely an executive branch with unitary power over military operations–has resulted in the decades since abandonment of war declarations as a prerequisite to major commitment of US forces.