WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama steered the nation’s war machine into uncharted territory Friday when a U.S. drone attacked a convoy in Yemen and killed two American citizens who had become central figures in al-Qaida.
It was believed to be the first instance in which a U.S. citizen was
tracked and executed based on secret intelligence and the president’s say-so. And it raised major questions about the limitations of presidential power.
Anwar al-Awlaki, the target of the U.S. drone attack, was one of the best-known al-Qaida figures after Osama bin Laden. American intelligence officials had linked him to two nearly catastrophic attacks on U.S.-bound planes, an airliner on Christmas 2009 and cargo planes last year. The second American killed in the drone attack, Samir Kahn, was the editor of Inspire, a slick online magazine aimed at al-Qaida sympathizers in the West.
Late Friday, two U.S. officials said intelligence indicated that the top al-Qaida bomb-maker in Yemen also died in the strike. Ibrahim al-Asiri is the bomb-maker linked to the bomb hidden in the underwear of a Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
Authorities also believe he built the bombs that al-Qaida slipped into printers and shipped to the U.S. last year in a nearly catastrophic attack.
Christopher Boucek, a scholar who studies Yemen and al-Qaida, said al-Asiri was so important to the organization that his death would “overshadow” the news of al-Awlaki and Khan.
In announcing al-Awlaki’s death, Obama said, “Al-Qaida and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world.”
“Working with Yemen and our other allies and partners, we will be determined, we will be deliberate, we will be relentless, we will be resolute in our commitment to destroy terrorist networks that aim to kill Americansm” he said.
It was Obama who ultimately made that call.
The idea of killing an American citizen provided critics with fodder for all sorts of comparisons showing the peculiarities of national security law and policy. The government could not listen to al-Awlaki’s phone calls without a judge’s approval, for instance, but could kill him on the president’s say-so. The Obama administration opposed imprisoning terrorist suspects without due process but supported killing them without due process.
“If the Constitution means anything, it surely means that the president does not have unreviewable authority to summarily execute any American whom he concludes is an enemy of the state,” ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner said Friday.
But Republicans and Democrats alike applauded the decision to launch the fatal assault on the convoy in Yemen.
“It’s something we had to do,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “The president is showing leadership. The president is showing guts.”
“It’s legal,” said Maryland Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “It’s legitimate and we’re taking out someone who has attempted to attack us on numerous occasions. And he was on that list.”
That list is the roster of people the White House has authorized the CIA and Pentagon to kill or capture as terrorists. The evidence against them almost always is classified. Targets never know for sure they are on the list, though some surely wouldn’t be surprised.
Before al-Awlaki, no American had been on the list.
But the legal process that led to his death was set in motion a decade ago. On Sept. 17, 2001, President George W. Bush signed a presidential order authorizing the CIA to hunt down terrorists worldwide. The authority was rooted in his power as commander in chief, leading a nation at war with al-Qaida.
The order made no distinction between foreigners and U.S. citizens. If they posed a “continuing and imminent threat” to the United States, they were eligible to be killed, former intelligence officials said.
The order was reviewed by top lawyers at the White House, CIA and Justice Department. With the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoking, there was little discussion about whether U.S. citizens should have more protection, the officials recalled. The feeling was that the government needed — and had — broad authority to find and kill terrorists who were trying to strike the U.S.