Court Finally Releases Portions of Obama Administration Memo Justifying Assassination of Americans in Yemen

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Anwar al-Awlaki

The Obama administration’s legal rationale that allowed it to serve as judge, jury and executioner for assassinating Americans overseas has finally been made public.


The long sought and controversial document was released by a federal appeals court following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).


Although portions of the July 2010 memo were redacted, key sections are now public that explain how the administration justified targeting and killing Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Muslim cleric accused of becoming a terrorist.


Awlaki died in September 2011 in a drone strike in Yemen along with another American in his company, Samir Khan. Weeks later, another drone strike killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, who was also a U.S. citizen. Neither Awlaki’s son nor Khan were said to have been targeted, making the deadly strikes authorized by President Barack Obama all the more controversial.


As the Times put it: “Mr. Obama’s decision to authorize the military and the C.I.A. to hunt down and kill Mr. Awlaki was an extraordinary step that created an important precedent for executive power, civil liberties and the rule of law.”


Officials deemed Awlaki a terrorist leader working for al-Qaeda or another group with close ties to it, and that he was “engaged in continual planning and direction of attacks” on Americans.


They further determined that Awlaki could not be captured.


So the administration set out to devise the legal basis for killing Awlaki, claiming his being a citizen did not prevent the use of deadly force.


“We do not believe al-Awlaki’s citizenship provides a basis for concluding that he is immune from a use of force abroad” as otherwise congressionally authorized to use against Al Qaeda, David Barron, then the acting head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, wrote in the memo addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.


Critics of the decision praised the release of the memo.


Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado), who had opposed Barron’s appointment to the federal bench but then supported his confirmation after the administration promised to release the document, called the release “a victory for government transparency.”


The ACLU called the release “an overdue but nonetheless crucial step toward transparency.”


“There are few questions more important than the question of when the government has the authority to kill its own citizens. This memo’s release will allow the public to better understand the scope and implications of the authority the government is claiming,” ACLU attorney Jameel Jaffer said in a statement.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Court Releases Large Parts of Memo Approving Killing of American in Yemen (by Charlie Savage, New York Times)

Justice Department Memo Approving Targeted Killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki (by Charlie Savage, New York Times)

Drone Strike Memo Released by 2nd Circuit (by Annie Youderian, Courthouse News Service)

Obama Administration Desperate to Censor Assassination Memo (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Senate Gives Initial Judicial Confirmation to Legal Author of Secret Memos Authorizing Drone Assassinations of U.S. Citizens (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Federal Judges Order Obama Administration to Release Memo Justifying Assassination of Americans (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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