PORTLAND, Ore. – After reviewing classified legal opinions used by the Obama administration to justify killing an American without trial with a drone, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and other members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence say the action was legal.
"We believe that the decision to use lethal force against Anwar al-Awlaki was a legitimate use of the authority granted to the President," Wyden, along with two other members of the intelligence committee, wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday.
Al-Awlaki was born in the United States. He was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen Sept. 30, 2011 while riding in a car. The Obama administration alleged al-Awlaki had turned against his country and plotted to kill Americans.
The senators appeared to find the administration's argument that al-Awlaki had joined a group (al-Qaida), which was engaged in attacks against the United States, the most compelling.
"Mr. al-Awlaki clearly made a conscious decision to join an organized fighting force that was (and is) engaged in planning and carrying out attacks against the United States ...," the senators, which included Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., wrote. "By taking on a leadership role in this organization, involving himself in ongoing operational planning against the United States, and demonstrating the capacity and intent to carry out these operations, he made himself a legitimate target for military action."
They went on to say that while the United States did not publicly acknowledge it wanted to kill al-Awlaki, the fact that it had been reported in American and international media was the "modern equivalent of a wanted poster."
The senators argued that if al-Awlaki believed he was innocent "he could have turned himself in and cleared his name."
The senators also noted that capturing al-Awlaki was not an option and that the killing appeared to be justified under international law, as well.
However, the senators still have questions, especially regarding the requirement that someone should be an "imminent" threat to others before the person is killed. They also want to know how much evidence is needed before a person is targeted for killing.
And the senators also want clarity on how constitutionally required "due process" applies in the context of targeting and killing an American who has not been brought to trial.
Additionally, the senators still want:
- The legal opinions that justify targeted killings outside war zones in regards to people who aren't Americans.
- The administration to explain how it determines who is a civilian.
- The rules that exist to ensure civilians are protected.
- How the administration determines whether civilians were killed in a strike in instances "where on-the-ground after action reviews are not possible."
"Increasing transparency about the rules that America follows when using military force would make the US government more accountable to the public, and allow the public to insist on improvements where appropriate," the senators wrote.
The senators did not address the drone killing of al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, two weeks later and 200 miles from where his father was killed. The Obama administration says the killing was accidental.
Wyden pressed the administration for more than two years to get access to the targeted killing legal opinions. It was not until he threatened to hold up the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA that President Barack Obama finally authorized the release of the still-classified legal analysis to the intelligence committee.
KATU.com has closely followed this topic over the last year as well as other efforts by Wyden to get the executive branch to be more transparent with him and the American people. Links to those stories are below.
- Drones, secret law and Wyden's push for transparency
- Wyden demands targeted killing legal opinions from CIA nominee (John Brennan)
- Wyden, senators ask president to release targeted killing memos
- Wyden supports Obama CIA pick after drone-kill docs supplied
- Wyden's standard: Secret programs must provide 'unique value'
- Wyden to soon re-engage administration on targeted killing program
- Wyden: Intel committee used provision once to release classified info