President Barack Obama hailed the killing of American Anwar al-Awlaki as a “milestone” and “a major blow to al-Qaeda,” but rights groups raised fears that the U.S. Constitution had also taken a devastating hit.
Missile-firing Predator drones, flown by CIA pilots sometimes half a world away, are increasingly the President’s weapon of choice. Hundreds of al-Qaeda suspects have been killed in Pakistan by roving Predators and similar strikes have been launched in Somalia and Yemen. The attacks often go unreported, downed drones are deniable and there is, of course, no opportunity for surrender nor any attempt to capture.
Former president George W. Bush stretched constitutional limits with an offshore prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in a failed effort to deny foreign detainees due process. Now Mr. Obama has upped the ante.
Using missile-firing drones to hunt down and kill American citizens abroad takes the “war on terrorism” to yet another level even as Mr. Obama has tried to distance himself from the Bush-era rhetoric and practices. Guantanamo and its notorious war-crimes trials remain in business.
“The targeted killing program violates both U.S. and international law,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. It allows “American citizens far from any battlefield to be executed by their own government without judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept secret – not just from the public but from the courts.”
Few Americans will lament the killing of the charismatic, Internet-savvy cleric who inspired a slew of jihadists and was linked to half-a-dozen vicious attacks. But the killing may be the first shot in the fundamental conflict over constitutional and geographic limits – if any – to Mr. Obama’s new methods of waging war.