WASHINGTON â€“â€“ Lawyers signed off on the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical U.S.-born Muslim cleric whose violent death provokes fresh questions about right and wrong in wartime.
Rules, after all, still apply even when the missiles start flying.
The Obama administration considers al-Awlakiâ€™s killing the justified elimination of a proven national security threat. Critics, including Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, called it an unlawful â€œassassination.â€
This is one legal dispute judges wonâ€™t solve.
â€œThere are circumstances in which the (presidentâ€™s) unilateral decision to kill a U.S. citizen overseas is constitutionally committed to the political branches and judicially unreviewable,â€ U.S. District Judge John Bates concluded last year.
In his 83-page decision last December, Bates dismissed an effort by al-Awlakiâ€™s father and civil liberties groups to block, in essence, al-Awlakiâ€™s execution. While acknowledging many â€œstark and perplexing questions,â€ Bates said he lacked the authority to get involved.
The same advocates who challenged al-Awlakiâ€™s lethal targeting then are now seeking through the Freedom of Information Act the specific documents and in-house legal opinions the Obama administration used to justify the alleged hit lists.
â€œThe legality of the targeted killing program is a concern, whether or not the target is an American citizen,â€ Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Unionâ€™s national security project, said in an interview Friday, â€œbut with an American, there are additional due process concerns.â€
An American overseas, for instance, canâ€™t be wiretapped without a warrant approved by a U.S. judge.
No such warrant is needed to eavesdrop on a foreigner.