Thursday, October 13, 2011

Anwar Al-Alwaki's Carnival Of Ironies

These are boom times if you are a collector of ironies, and none may larger than despite the fact that President Obama has been repeatedly accused of being weak on fighting terrorism by the Republican national security choir, he has been more successful in three short years than the bombastic and serially reckless Bush administration was in eight.

The aggressive Obama administration push back has included stepped up drone attacks and commando raids in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in the mountainous Wild West border region they share, the assassination by Navy SEAL team of Osama bin Laden in May within hailing distance of the Pakistani West Point, and most recently the assassination by drone of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

The death of Awlaki on September 30 was different.

The radical Muslim cleric was American born and despite his record as an Al Qaeda mastermind whose plot to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet on Christmas Day 2009 as it was preparing to land in Detroit was foiled at the last minute, there was an outcry from the usual quarters -- civilian libertarians concerned that the rule of law had been trammeled in not affording Awlaki due process. But in Irony Number Two, there were cries of concern from some of the very Republicans who have criticized Obama and from Al Qaeda, as well.

My own view as a civil libertarian who was horrified at the excesses of the Bush-Cheney interregnum, including the use of Nazi-like torture techniques against American citizens, is in two words -- tough spit.

Think of Awlaki as a sniper who methodically picks off people from high atop a tower. Do the authorities risk escalating the carnage by trying to scale the tower and rush the sniper so his constitutional rights to a presumption of innocence and a fair trial are protected? Or does a marksman with a high-powered rifle blow his brains out? If you believe in the former then you've been inhaling too many exhaust fumes from your Prius.

My one concern is that knocking off American citizens overseas could become habit forming, but in what certainly was an intentional White House leak, Charlie Savage of The New York Times reported this week that Awlaki was a one-off and that administration officials had agonized for months about whether to take him out before a carefully worded memorandum from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel green-lighted the drone strike.

That would be Irony Number 3 as it was that same office that during the Bush administration wrote notorious memoranda justifying the use of torture on extremely dubious legal grounds that in essence gave the president unlimited power. But the Obama administration is not quite off the hook because its Awlaki memo has not been made public and, according to sources, is based in part of circumstantial evidence.

Finally, the decision to off Awlaki was made entirely within the executive branch. Congress was not consulted, and it is beholden on the Obama administration to craft overall guidelines with Congress in the event there is future need to kill an American on foreign soil. Which there certainly could be as the War on Terror, despite recent successes, is far from over.

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