The US still struggles to reconcile security against terrorism with its core democratic values of the rule of law and respect for human rights. A reminder is an operational memo provided to senior members of congressional intelligence committees, lifting a veil of secrecy over the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in a remote-controlled US drone strike in Yemen in 2011. What sets Awlaki, a Sunni Muslim cleric, apart from other victims targeted by drones in the fight against terrorists is that he was an American citizen by birth. And his killing was ordered by President Barack Obama.
The memo maintains that congressional authorisation for the use of force after the September 11 terrorist attacks gives Obama the right to order the killing of any US citizen considered to pose an imminent threat. Officials say Awlaki was an advocate of jihad against the US who became commander of an al-Qaeda affiliate. In a passionate defence of the use of drones to target terror suspects beyond the reach of the law, CIA director-designate John Brennan told senators that Awlaki had ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on US soil. Nonetheless his execution was ordered without judicial oversight or reference to congressional representatives.
For human rights groups, the legal reasoning behind the killing echoed opinions written for former president George W. Bush to justify illegal wiretapping, indefinite detention, abuse and torture of terrorism suspects. Obama ordered public disclosure of the Bush opinions and promised a return to transparency and the rule of law. The drones memo suggests otherwise. Bush was ultimately forced to abandon inhuman treatment and put wire tapping on a legal footing. Senators suggest a judicial system to regulate drone strikes, similar to that for government surveillance in terrorism cases. Obama should seriously consider it, if the US expects legality from other countries developing drone technology. That would also uphold the rule of law at the heart of the American way of life which, after all, is what is under attack from terrorists.