Awlaki Killing Stokes Debate on Limits of Executive Power

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Byline: Peter Finn The Washington Post=

WASHINGTON -- The killing in Yemen on Friday of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, by an American drone strike that also killed a second citizen, violently punctuates a legal debate about the limits of executive power to kill the nation's own citizens as a counterterrorism measure.

The Obama administration has spoken in broad terms about its authority to use military force against al-Qaida and associated forces beyond "hot" or traditional battlefields such as Iraq or Afghanistan. But it has refused to reveal its exact legal analysis for targeting Awlaki and last year invoked the state-secrets privilege to argue successfully that a lawsuit brought in U.S. District Court by Awlaki's father should be dismissed.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights argued on behalf of Awlaki's father that there is no "battlefield" in Yemen and that the administration should be forced to publicly articulate its legal standards for killing any citizen outside the United States who is suspected of terrorism.

Otherwise, the groups argued, such a killing would amount to an extrajudicial execution and would violate the Fifth Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to due process.

"International human rights law dictates that you can't unilaterally target someone and kill someone without that person posing an imminent threat to security interests," said Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

"The information that we have, from the government's own press releases, is that he is somehow loosely connected, but there is no specific evidence of things he actualized that would meet the legal threshold for making this killing justifiable as a matter of human rights law. …