Anwar al-Awlaki (also spelled al-Aulaqi) was never charged with a crime. Despite the lack of charges and trials, the US government executed the American-born citizen in a targeted drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011. The same drone strike killed fellow American Samir Khan. Al-Awlaki's 16 year-old son Adulrahman was killed in another strike a few weeks later, making three American murdered by their own government without any pretense of trial or due process.
The assassination became a public controversy during John Brennan's nomination to the head of the Central Intelligence Agency after his time as President Obama's counterterrorism adviser. The New York Times ran a story based on interviews with various anonymous administration officials on Sunday, March 9, prompting accusations of serving as a mouthpiece for government propaganda.
The ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights issued a joint statement blasting the Times' article as "the latest in a series of one-sided, selective disclosures that prevent meaningful public debate and legal or even political accountability for the government's killing program."
Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, the Times reporters who wrote the article, uncritically describe Al-Awlaki using the government's words. They call him "a senior operative in Al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen" and a terrorist leader," yet Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted both accusations remain unproven and dubious. The ACLU's statement goes on to correctly point out:
Government officials have made serious allegations against Anwar al-Aulaqi, but allegations are not evidence, and the whole point of the Constitution’s due process clause is that a court must distinguish between the two. If the government has evidence that Al-Aulaqi posed an imminent threat at the time it killed him, it should present that evidence to a court....
In court filings made just last week, the government in essence argued, wrongly, that it has the authority to kill these three Americans without ever having to justify its actions under the Constitution in any courtroom.
Further at issue, the government is anonymously giving unchecked statements to the New York Times, which printed them as fact. Savage & Shane quote several anonymous senior officials, seemingly trying to justify murders that, for months, the Obama administration refused to admit ordering. As Glenn Greenwald points out in The Guardian:
Time and time again, the Obama administration shrouds what it does with complete secrecy, and then uses that secrecy to avoid judicial review of its actions...But then, senior Obama officials run to the New York Times by the dozens, demand (and receive) anonymity, and then spout all sorts of claims about these very same programs that are designed to justify what the US government has done and to glorify Obama. The New York Times helpfully shields these officials--who are not blowing any whistles, but acting as government spokespeople--from being identified, and then mindlessly regurgitates their assertions as fact. It's standard government stenography, administration press releases masquerading as in-depth news articles.
Media outlets certainly have a responsibility to present the facts and check their anonymous sources. Why, however, do administration sources decline to stand behind their own actions? Hiding behind anonymity does not reflect the transparency that the president has repeatedly promised the public.
Finally, Save & Shane (and their anonymous sources) further assert that both Khan and the younger al-Awlaki were killed accidentally. If true, that means either that the narrow targeting parameters explained in recently released administration legal memos do not actually control targeting decisions, or that the drone assassination program is hardly as reliably accurate as apologists have claimed.
Three Americans, and countless other civilians, have been killed without any semblance of justice. America can do better than this. The Obama administration needs to own up to its mistakes, and let the public judge them.