The Obama administration seems to believe that the president has the authority to order the assassination of anyone, including US citizens, if they meet certain as-yet-undisclosed criteria.
One US citizen, accused terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, has been widely reported to be on a US government “kill list” — making him just one of several US citizens the government is reportedly trying to kill without charge or trial.
On August 30, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) sued the government to force a change to this policy. Their client is Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar’s father.
The groups hope that a court will rule that non-judicial “targeted killing” off a battlefield like Iraq or Afghanistan “is illegal in all but the narrowest circumstances”. They also hope to force the government to explain exactly how it decides to put US citizens like Awlaki on a government “kill list”.
Vince Warren, executive director of CCR, said: “The United States cannot simply execute people, including its own citizens, anywhere in the world based on its own say-so. The law prohibits the government from killing without trial or conviction other than in the face of an imminent threat that leaves no time for deliberation or due process.
“That the government adds people to kill lists after a bureaucratic process and leaves them on the lists for months at a time flies in the face of the constitution and international law.”
The groups charge that targeting individuals for execution who are suspected of terrorism but have not been convicted or even charged — without oversight, judicial process or disclosed standards for placement on kill lists — also poses the risk that the government will erroneously target the wrong people.
In recent years, the US government has detained many people as terrorists, only for courts or the government itself to discover later that the evidence was wrong or unreliable.
The legal complaint said the government has not disclosed the standards it uses for authorising the premeditated and deliberate killing of US citizens located far from any battlefield. The groups argue that the US people are entitled to know the standards being used for these life and death decisions.
ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero said: “A program that authorises killing US citizens, without judicial oversight, due process or disclosed standards is unconstitutional, unlawful and un-American. We don’t sentence people to prison on the basis of secret criteria, and we certainly shouldn’t sentence them to death that way.
“It is not enough for the executive branch to say ‘trust us’ — we have seen that backfire in the past and we should learn from those mistakes.”
Unfortunately for the plaintiffs (and al-Awlaki himself), the lawsuit does not have much hope. Unless the president himself changes his mind about targeted killings, nothing much is likely to change.
The executive branch has too many legal tools at its disposal — the “state secrets” privilege, the “wartime president” excuse, and so on — to lose a case like this.
So unless Obama decides otherwise, the US is going to probably remain a country that can simply execute people, including its own citizens, anywhere in the world based on its own say-so.
[Abridged from Mother Jones.]