The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) together with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is suing Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner over the Obama administration’s decision to authorize the targeted killing of radical Muslim cleric and al-Qaeda leader, Anwar al-Awlaki, without due process. Awlaki, a U.S. citizen living in Yemen since 2004, is linked to the Fort Hood shootings, the attempted Christmas Day bombing, the failed Times Square bombing, and more. As a result of his terrorist activities, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) formally labeled Awlaki a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in July.
The lawsuit cleared its first hurdle yesterday when the U.S. Treasury granted the ACLU and CCR permission to sue the federal government in the first place, since it is illegal to represent OFAC-designated terrorist suspects without a permit. “The license … will allow us to pursue our litigation relating to the government’s asserted authority to engage in targeted killings of American civilians without due process,” the groups said in a joint statement.
On the surface this lawsuit seems to have merit: allowing the government to authorize targeted killings of American citizens without their day in court is a slippery slope, right?
Wrong: Awlaki is no ordinary citizen. He is a designated terrorist that continues to work on the battlefield in Yemen with al-Qaeda, aiding in the operational planning of terrorist attacks against the United States. If Mr. Awlaki, for instance, was in custody, then no American – especially from the Obama administration – would deny the al-Qaeda front-man his day in court. But Awlaki is a terrorist on the run, and, as Ben Lerner notes in the summer 2010 edition of inFOCUS Quarterly, actions such as the ACLU’s effectively treat terrorists like common criminals rather than enemy combatants.
There’s no doubt that the targeted drone attacks carried out against al-Qaeda under former President Bush and intensified under the Obama administration have devastated the terrorist group. In an asymmetric war such as the U.S. is embroiled in, where the enemy is not a state but rather terrorist non-state actors that by definition know no bounds, such tactics are unfortunately necessary to pursue so that the U.S. can win the war with the smallest number of casualties possible. Indeed, while this may not be the civil liberties groups’ intended consequences, as it stands, the ACLU-CCR’s lawsuit threatens to derail one of America’s most effective counterterrorism strategies to date.