Joan Smith: Obama – the idealist turns assassin

The US president has approved the targeted killing of a fellow American. So what has changed the principled politician?

Share
Related Topics

Back in the old days, when Barack Obama was one of the hopefuls trying to get his party's presidential nomination, he was asked a specific question: does the American constitution permit a president to detain US citizens without charge as unlawful enemy combatants? The would-be candidate's response was unequivocal, rejecting the idea that there was any such power. No wonder, then, that so many people were startled when it emerged last week that the Obama administration has authorised not only the detention but the "targeted killing" of an American citizen, the extremist Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

For decades, the CIA was suspected of covertly plotting political assassinations, but the practice was believed to have been banned by President Gerald Ford. Under the Bush administration, such an admission would have caused more outrage than astonishment, but isn't Obama supposed to be more principled than his predecessor?

Perhaps we shouldn't have been caught off guard. The ground for the announcement was prepared in February when the director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, said that targeted killings of American nationals were theoretically possible: "We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community. If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that." He must have had Awlaki in mind: the Muslim cleric was born in New Mexico and was an imam in the US before he went to Yemen, where he's believed to be hiding.

President George W Bush famously talked about wanting Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" after the 9/11 attacks. Congress approved the use of military force against al-Qa'ida after the suicide-bombings and its operatives are considered to be enemies of the US, exempting them from Ford's ban on assassinations. Now Awlaki finds himself in the same category, accused of escalating from verbal threats to getting involved in actual plots, with counter-terrorism officials claiming he has recruited individuals to attack US interests. But specific details of what he's accused of have not been released.

None of this is to suggest that Awlaki is anything other than a religious fanatic who has set himself up as a poster-boy for naive young men who see Muslims as victims. Anyone who doubts it should read the interview conducted with him in 2007 by the former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg, who on Awlaki's release from prison in Yemen, invited him to meet his supporters in the UK and confronted him with challenging questions such as this: "What was your response to the outpouring of support and concern, the campaigns, petitions, Facebook groups and the messages that you've received since your release?"

A more accurate portrait of Awlaki emerged two months ago from an interview with al-Jazeera in which he admitted that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who tried to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit on Christmas day, was "one of my students". Awlaki denied issuing a fatwa telling Abdulmutallab to bomb the plane but said: "I support what Umar Farouk has done."

Three months earlier, Awlaki hailed US army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan, currently facing 13 charges of murder following a massacre at Fort Hood in Texas, as a "hero"; Hasan attended the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Virginia Falls when Awlaki preached there and the two men exchanged emails before the killings. Awlaki is also accused of being spiritual leader to three 9/11 hi-jackers.

It's not hard to see why American counter-terrorism officials have lost patience with the cleric, whom they now accuse of being a senior operative of the organisation al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula.

"The United States works, exactly as the American people expect, to overcome threats to their security, and this individual – through his own actions – has become one," an unnamed official said. None of which explains how Awlaki poses an imminent threat to the US, which is the sole justification for adding someone's name to a capture-or-kill list.

At the beginning of his presidency, Obama appeared to row back from the Bush administration. Even Bush himself has had second thoughts, admitting a couple of years ago that he regretted his emotional post-9/11 outburst about bin Laden. Now the Obama administration has taken the risk of announcing a possible assassination of an American citizen in advance, a move so extraordinary that it prompts several lines of speculation.

One is that Obama is deliberately trying to break with the CIA's murky past; if the President has been persuaded that such desperate measures must be adopted, he may believe it's better to have the whole thing out in the open rather than risk a series of damaging leaks.

Another possibility is that an operation to seize or kill Awlaki is imminent, and public opinion is being prepared for its inflammatory consequences in Muslim countries.

But whatever lies behind the announcement, it does not remove the moral problem of political assassination as official policy for dealing with a country's enemies when it is not, strictly speaking, at war. (Most people would say that trying to assassinate Hitler in 1938 is quite different from attempting it in 1942.)

A young civil rights lawyer called Barack Obama would have had strong views, I suspect, about imposing an extra-judicial death penalty on an American citizen who hasn't even had a trial. But that was in another country, so to speak; and besides, that idealistic youth is now President of the United States.

www.politicalblonde.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories