Tonawanda News

March 10, 2013

DUVALL: Drawing the line on targets for drone strikes

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Defending America is tricky business and even those with the best of intentions quickly find themselves miles from jingoistic bumper stickers imploring us to “support our troops.”

Case in point is the debate in Washington over the Obama administration’s sanctioning of the drone killing of an American-born member of al Qaida. 

The case of Anwar al-Awlaki raises pertinent and scary new questions about the limits of presidential power, First Amendment rights and prosecuting global terrorists.

Awlaki wasn’t born a radical Muslim orchestrating terror strikes against innocent fellow citizens. He was at points in the beginning of his career as a cleric, a moderate. He preached at the Capitol and spoke at the Pentagon. He gave moderate interviews to American media.

But slowly, over the course of a decade, he would grow into a senior al Qaida operative who played a role in the Fort Hood shootings, the so-called Underwear Bomber’s attempt to bring down an airliner over Detroit and another failed bomb plot in Times Square.

He was, in short, a very bad man.

How the Obama administration addressed the situation, though, was at best clumsy and at worst downright terrifying. After months of debate and an intense legal battle justifying the act — all behind closed doors — the military and the CIA tracked Awlaki and killed him. Along the way, they also killed two other Americans — one Awlaki’s 16-year-old son who, with no terrorist implications, who had set out to try to find his father.

For years, the CIA had monitored Awlaki’s correspondences, telephone and web-based. He was a powerful recruiting tool for al Qaida, speaking unaccented English and writing eloquently about what he saw as America’s war on Islam.

Dastardly as that might sound, we have a thing called the First Amendment protecting it. 

Besides, intelligence officials noted he hadn’t become, in their parlance, “operational.” In other words, he was only using words and they didn’t have any real world evidence that Awlaki was actually carrying out terrorist plots. That is, until the Underwear Bomber cooperated with interrogators and cited Awlaki’s recruitment, training and explicit instructions to board and blow up the airplane two days before Christmas in 2009.

To make a very long story slightly shorter, it was this knowledge that moved Awlaki from being an American citizen protected under the Constitution to an enemy of the state who, the Obama administration argued in a 63-page legal memorandum it was legal to target for assassination if capture wasn’t an option.

Tracking him through the Yemeni desert, where the country’s ruler had given the CIA and Pentagon authority to carry out drone strikes as long as they weren’t publicly acknowledged, and thereby constitute a violation of Yemeni sovereignty. 

Strike we did.

Multiple attempts to kill Awlaki using informant tips from his inner circle failed. Multiple others were killed — collateral damage, as it’s known in military circles.

Finally, the CIA got its man, striking and killing Awlaki as he traveled with another American-born al Qaida sympathizer, Samir Kahn. 

Kahn, the Justice Department argued in that 63-page memo, was not a significant threat and did not merit the special exception that had been granted the government to kill Awlaki. They just happened to do so anyway.

Wrong place, wrong time, I guess.

A month later, another informant told his CIA contact a wanted Egyptian terrorist was having lunch at a cafe in Yemen. A drone-launched missile hit the cafe dead on. Except the Egyptian terrorist wasn’t there. Among the dead? Awlaki’s 16-year-old American son, Abdulrahman.

In a world where black and white judgments are impossible, I agree the Obama administration was justified in targeting Awlaki. Why should Constitutional rights apply to someone who’s forsaken those rights in favor of killing others who haven’t?

But in carrying out the act, the Obama administration has laid bare the obvious and painful truth that targeting one American might be justified, but others will inevitably be casualties along the way.

So there’s a logical question: Where do we draw the line?

I don’t have the answer. It’s plainly obvious the president doesn’t either.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at