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With Death of Anwar al-Awlaki, Has U.S. Launched New Era of Killing U.S. Citizens Without Charge?

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The United States has confirmed the killing of the radical Yemeni-American cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, in northern Yemen. The Obama administration says al-Awlaki is one of the most influential al-Qaeda operatives on its “most wanted” list. In response to news of al-Awlaki’s death, constitutional scholar Glenn Greenwald and others argue the assassination of U.S. citizens without due process has now has become a reality. “One of the bizarre aspects of it is that media and government reports try to sell al-Awlaki as some grand terrorist mastermind … describing him as the new bin Laden. The United States government needs a terrorist mastermind to replace Osama bin Laden to justify this type of endless war … For a while, al-Awlaki was going to serve that function,” Greenwald says. “If you are somebody that believes the President of the United States has the power to order your fellow citizens murdered, assassinated, killed without a shred of due process … then you are really declaring yourself to be as pure of an authoritarian as it gets.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Shortly before we went on the air this morning, senior U.S. administration officials confirmed the killing of the radical Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in northern Yemen. The United States says al-Awlaki is one of the most influential al-Qaeda operatives on its “most wanted” list. News of the death was first announced by Yemen’s Defense Ministry. In a text message sent to journalists, the Ministry wrote, quote, “The terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed along with some of his companions,” but did not provide further details. In a separate email statement, the Yemeni government reported al-Awlaki was targeted and killed about 90 miles east of the capital Sana’a. The statement said the attack was launched at 9:55 a.m. local time.

Despite the Yemeni government’s claims its forces successfully targeted Awlaki in a raid near the capital, sources on the ground say he was likely killed in a U.S. air strike. Awlaki was previously targeted in a U.S. bombing of Yemen earlier this year.

Well, for more, we turn to Glenn Greenwald, constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for He joins us via Democracy Now! video stream from Brazil. He first reported in January of last year that the Obama administration had compiled a hit list of American citizens whom it had ordered assassinated without any due process. One of those Americans was Anwar al-Awlaki, despite substantial doubt among Yemen experts about whether he has an operational role in al-Qaeda.

Glenn Greenwald, welcome to Democracy Now!

GLENN GREENWALD: Good to be here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Glenn, your reaction, first of all, to this news, and what it means in terms of any new precedence now set by this administration in the targeting of U.S. citizens?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, let’s begin with the fact that Anwar al-Awlaki is a U.S. citizen. He was ordered assassinated by the President of the United States without presenting any evidence of any kind as to his guilt, without attempting to indict him in any way or comply with any of the requirements of the Constitution that say that you can’t deprive somebody of life without due process of law. The President ordered him killed wherever he was found, including far away from a battlefield, no matter what it was that he was doing at the time. And if you’re somebody who believes that the president of the United States has the power to order your fellow citizens murdered, assassinated, killed, without even a shred of due process, without having to charge him with crimes or indict him and prove in a court that he’s actually guilty, then you’re really declaring yourself to be as pure of an authoritarian as it gets. Remember that there was great controversy that George Bush asserted the power simply to detain American citizens without due process or simply to eavesdrop on their conversation without warrant. Here you have something much more severe, not eavesdropping on American citizens, not detaining them without due process, but killing them without due process. And yet, many Democrats and progressives, because it’s President Obama doing it, have no problem with it and are even in favor of it. To say that the president has the right to kill citizens without due process is really to take the Constitution and to tear it into as many little pieces as you can and then burn it and step on it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, for those in our audience who are not familiar with him, give us a sketch of who al-Awlaki is and what the alleged terrorist plots that he was involved with are.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, he, as I said, was born in the United States and went to college in the United States and for a long time was considered by the U.S. government and the media to be a moderate Muslim cleric. In fact, the Pentagon invited him to a lunch in the wake of 9/11 in order to talk to him and other Muslim leaders about how to root out extremism in the Muslim community. The Washington Post had him host his own chat about the meaning of various Muslim holidays and the like. So, for a long time he was viewed as this sort of moderate figure.

He became increasingly radicalized, like a lot of people have, over the last decade, as the United States continued to slaughter Muslim men, women and children in multiple countries around the world. And he definitely became much more hostile, in his sermons, to the United States and began arguing that it wasn’t just the duty, but the right, of Muslims to not just be passive receivers of violence by the United States, but also to begin to attack the United States back as a means of deterring further violence. And so, he definitely became a great concern to the United States, because he was so effective in communicating these ideas in English to large parts of the English-speaking Muslim world.

And, of course, expressing those ideas, that the United States is engaged in aggression against the Muslim world and that Muslims have the right or even the duty to fight back rather than getting passively slaughtered, whether you agree with those ideas or not or think they’re horrible ideas, they’re obviously rights that you have to express under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The government began claiming that it wasn’t just his messages and his ideas that were bothering them and making them want to kill him, but the fact that he started to have an operational role in various plots, such as the attempt by Abdulmutallab to detonate a bomb in a jet over Detroit over Christmas. They claim that he was involved in the attack by Nidal Hasan on the Fort Hood base that killed 14 American servicemembers. The problem with that is that there’s been no evidence presented that he’s actually been involved in any of those plots. He’s not been indicted, he’s not been charged. If he has been involved in those plots, then the solution is to charge him with those crimes, bring him before a court of justice, and prove his guilt, not simply to order him killed as though the President is his judge, jury and executioner.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, his father had attempted, or started a court proceeding to try to enjoin the Obama administration from carrying out any attack on his son. Could you talk about that and where that is?

GLENN GREENWALD: Sure, well, Awlaki himself was incapable of suing to vindicate his rights, because had he popped his head up at any time, as we proved today, he would have been killed by the Unites States government, which sought on several occasions before today to kill him. So his father brought suit on his behalf, represented by the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, asking a court to enjoin the President from murdering his son without due process. And in response, the Obama administration made numerous claims, mostly arguing that courts have no right to interfere in the decisions the president makes about who is an enemy combatant, using standard Bush-Cheney theories about how this is a military operation that the court shouldn’t be involved in. And they even argued that whom the president decides to assassinate is a state secret and that courts have no business meddling in or judging or adjudicating the president’s choices in that regard.

A federal court, several months ago, accepted the argument that this was really a political and military matter and not a legal or constitutional or judicial question for courts to resolve, although the judge said that there’s very difficult questions raised because of what an extraordinary step this is for the president to order American citizens killed. He said it’s really up to the Congress to stop it or for the president to make decisions on his own. That, I believe, is being appealed. The appeal is pending, but obviously it’s now too late. There’s no point in trying to obtain an injunction now that Awlaki has been killed by President Obama.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the bizarre irony of the government in Yemen, which is clearly illegitimate by any international standards, facing a huge popular rebellion among its own people, being involved, to some degree or other, with the United States in this killing?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, President Saleh, who of course has been slaughtering his own citizens, you know, by the dozens over the last several months, and is still—you know, has been a longtime ally of the United States. The State Department has issued some very meek statements suggesting that there should be a democratic transition. But we’ve continued to work with President Saleh, the U.S. government has, to try and kill the people that we want dead in Yemen, including Awlaki. And this is widely viewed as an attempt by President Saleh to sort of offer an olive branch to the United States: “We will help you kill the American citizen within our borders, whom you want dead, in exchange for your continuing to support our regime.”

Of course, you know, the United States has been trying to claim to the Arab world that it is on the right side of the Arab Spring, and yet, just yesterday, of course, in Bahrain, numerous medical professionals—doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers—were imprisoned for the crime of treating protesters who were shot by government forces just two weeks after the U.S. government announced that it plans to ship to Bahrain huge amounts of new weapons. And here, our longtime ally, President Saleh, is not only now slaughtering his own citizens, but helping the United States government murder its own. So it’s a pretty difficult sell to people in the Muslim world to claim that we’re on the right side of the Arab Spring, when we not only continue to embrace the people who kill their own citizens, but now kill our own citizens, as well.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I want to read to you a quote from the editor of the Yemeni Post, Hakim al-Masmari. He said, quote, “The Yemeni government will face a lot of criticism, especially in the south, for allowing US drones to attack Yemeni civilians. But it will not be a blow to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from any perspective. We don’t feel they will suffer, because [Awlaki] did not have any real role in [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula].”

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. Well, one of the, you know, bizarre aspects of this is that media and government reports have tried to sell Awlaki as some sort of grand terrorist mastermind. There’s even lots of articles you can find online in major publications describing him as “the new bin Laden.” You know, the United States government needs a terrorist mastermind to replace bin Laden to justify this type of endless war that President Obama, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is insisting on not just continuing, but escalating. And for awhile, Awlaki was, you know, the person who was going to serve that function.

But the problem is, if you read experts in Yemen, like Gregory Johnsen and others, they mock the idea that Awlaki was some sort of a leader of al-Qaeda and even question whether he had any operational role at all in any of these plots. He was clearly a cleric who developed some audience and was popular particularly among English-speaking Muslim youth because of his ability to communicate with them. But the idea that he was some sort of high-up in al-Qaeda or that this is a blow to the operational capability of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is absolutely ludicrous. And if you read Yemen experts, you’ll see that that’s true.

The problem is that American political culture is such that evidence doesn’t make a difference. Trials and due process are very pre-9/11. What we believe is that if the president stands up and says that someone is a terrorist, that’s all we need to know. They are therefore guilty, because the leader has accused him of being that. And as long as his aides then go and leak to the media, which they are doing and have done, that he played a significant operational role and was a big al-Qaeda leader, we won’t need to see any evidence. We’ll just stand up and blindly click our heels and accept it’s true, and then cheer the fact that he’s been murdered based on those unproven claims.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Glenn, what can people who are concerned about this extraordinary extension of the powers of a president to basically ignore any kind of due process with our American citizens, what can they do?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, one thing that is obvious is that voting for Democrats as opposed to Republicans doesn’t help. In fact, you know, if you read the New York Times article from April 2010 confirming that Awlaki is on the hit list, it makes clear that there’s been no instances where George Bush ordered American citizens targeted for assassination, that this is an extraordinary, and even perhaps an unprecedented, step under the Democratic president.

You know, what people in the Arab world did when their leaders did things like imprison them, let alone kill them, and their fellow citizens without trials, is they went out into the streets and protested and demanded that it stopped. And so, you know, it’s hard to see how voting for one of these two parties is going to end these extraordinary excesses and violations of the Constitution. It clearly doesn’t. Something outside of that system is necessary to address it. That’s been proven.

And so, I think, you know, if Americans cared about the constitutional rights that they pretended to care about under George Bush, Democrats in particular, they would be very vocally protesting and objecting to this. But the problem is, is that the opportunity to use these issues as a means to undermine Republican politicians is now gone, and so a lot of the people who three years ago were pretending to care about these things no longer do. And so, the question that American citizens have to ask themselves is whether they really believe in the principles of liberty and rights that they have learned were protected by the Constitution. That’s just a piece of paper, the Constitution. It cannot protect those rights. Only the citizenry can ensure that those rights aren’t trampled on. And the question is whether citizens actually believe in those.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And finally, Glenn Greenwald, we’re getting reports that the U.S. government is confirming that it was a joint operation with the Yemeni government. Your sense of whether you believe this was a drone strike largely carried out by the United States?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, I mean, there’s no question, I believe, that the United States played a significant role. I mean, the United States have been wanting to kill Awlaki for a long time. The Yemeni government has not wanted to kill him, in part because if it does, it will trigger lots of unrest and resentment, and that’s the last thing, especially at this point, that it wants. So I believe that this has been done by an air strike. Certainly the Yemeni government would not have the ability to carry that out on its own. The fact that the U.S. government confirmed so quickly that he was dead and is now accepting responsibility, I think, is fairly definitive proof that, you know, the U.S. played a very significant role, if not the lead role, in extinguishing the life of its own citizen without due process.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Glenn Greenwald, I want to thank you for being with us, constitutional law attorney, political and legal blogger for We’re going to break, and when we come back, we’re going to take a look at a new film on the American teacher.

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