Killing justified? Dubious.

  United States military and intelligence services have had a string of successes lately at killing high-ranking terrorists. But what remains unclear is whether these killings — often carried out by drone strikes in countries we are not at war with, were legal. The New York Times published an article Sunday that described how the White House justified killing Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born leader of al-Qaida. Al-Awlaki was killed Sept. 30 by a drone strike in Yemen. What has brought controversy is that President Barack Obama authorized the killing of an American citizen without a trial. American officials allege that he played a role in several terrorist attempts, including the attempted underwear bombing of an airliner Christmas Day. He is also alleged to have been a “spiritual adviser” to several of the 9/11 hijackers and to Nidal Hassan, the army major on trial for the 2009 Fort Hood shootings. I do not think al-Awlaki could have been called an American citizen when he was killed. The United States Code, a collection of federal statutes, defines how one can gain and lose citizenship. 8 U.S.C § 1481 states that forfeiture of citizenship can result from “committing an act of treason, or attempting by force to overthrow or take up arms against the United States…” Aiding in plots to kill American citizens would certainly satisfy this requirement — so why is al-Awlaki’s death being debated as a killing of an American citizen? The issue of how, or whether to, prosecute terrorists is not new. In the years after 9/11 the Bush Administration wrestled with whether captured terrorists would be tried in civilian courts or military tribunals. In 2006, the Supreme Court declared that terrorists could not be tried in military tribunals and could not be considered enemy combatants. Instead of putting the lives of American soldiers in danger by attempting to arrest al-Awlaki in Yemen, the U.S. took him out when they had the chance, and minimized the likelihood of killing civilians by waiting until al-Awlaki was traveling and away from population centers. The Obama administration justified killing al-Awlaki instead of arresting him because this was “not feasible.” But another question looms — did the United States violate the sovereignty of Yemen by conducting a military operation in a friendly nation? Yes. But what was the alternative? Yemen was unwilling, or at the very least unable to capture al-Awlaki. It would be in the best interest of Yemen to share our interests — Yemen received more than $200 million in foreign aid from the U.S. in 2010. Still, it just seems chilling that lawyers from the Pentagon, White House and the Justice Department sat around a table and wrote a 50-page memo to justify killing someone. But al-Awlaki wasn’t the only American killed in the incident. Samir Khan, born in Saudi Arabia but raised in New York, published a blog encouraging attacks on the U.S. and  recruiting people to join al-Qaida. Al-Qaida in Yemen released a statement after the killing, arguing that the United States had violated its own constitution. So, a terrorist organization that is bent on killing Americans is seeking legal protection under our laws? Did the killing of al-Awlaki violate U.S. and international law? I think so. Did it make American safer? Yes. U.S. and international laws aren’t clear about how to classify, prosecute or kill terrorists — policy has not caught up with the times. The Obama administration didn’t choose to conduct an airstrike without any regard for legality — the government’s top lawyers more than a year ago used existing laws and precedents to draft a detailed memo detailing how the administration would justify such a strike. The government has a vested interest is keeping Americans safe. Those who seek to destroy this country do not deserve protection under its laws