Killing a Citizen: NYT, Awlaki and ‘Muddying the Moral Clarity’

Anwar Al-Awlaki (Al-Malahem Media/screenshot: Magharebia)

Anwar Al-Awlaki, the first U.S. citizen to be killed as a war enemy since the Civil War. (Al-Malahem Media/screenshot: Magharebia)

The Obama administration has not wanted to explain in any great detail how it justified killing an American citizen in Yemen. But there were apparently plenty of current and former officials willing to explain their case to the New York Times.

So the paper got incredible access to high-level officials. But did we learn anything about the U.S. drone program?

The long piece “How a U.S. Citizen Came to Be in America’s Cross Hairs” (3/10/13), written by Times reporters Mark Mazzetti, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane, attempts to reconstruct the legal rational for the September 2011 strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, which

was apparently the first time since the Civil War…the United States government had carried out the deliberate killing of an American citizen as a wartime enemy and without a trial.

The government, as the Times explains, had to come up with a justification, based on the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), that could permit the government to kill a citizen without trial. The lawyers further refined their justification after “reading a legal blog that focused on a statute that bars Americans from killing other Americans overseas.”

A key element of the government’s case is the notion that Awlaki was more than just a propagandist–which was what the government had considered him for years;  it could not justifiably kill him because his speeches were popular with Islamic militants. The government changed its tune, though, and they certainly convinced the New York Times, which calls Awlaki “a senior operative in Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen” and “a terrorist leader.”

What is the evidence for this designation? The case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, sometimes called the “underwear bomber,” who attempted to blow up a plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.  After some interrogation,  Abdulmutallab apparently told the FBI that Awlaki had been a planner of the attack. As the Times writes,

American officials had witness confirmation that Mr. Awlaki was clearly a direct plotter, no longer just a dangerous propagandist.

The Times was convinced, but should they have been? In a harsh critique of the Times story, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald (3/11/13) pointed out that

while the NY Times asserts as though it’s incontrovertible that he was “a senior operative in Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen“, Yemen experts such as Gregory Johnsen have long said the opposite: “We suspect a great deal about Anwar al-Awlaki, but we know very little, precious little, when it comes to his operational role” and “Mendelsohn [said]: ‘(Awlaki) played an important role in a string of attacks in the West.’ We just don’t know this, we suspect it but don’t know it.”

The whole piece, Greenwald, argued, was revealing in that the “Obama administration shrouds what it does with complete secrecy,” but then

senior Obama officials run to the New York Times by the dozens, demand (and receive) anonymity, and then spout all sorts of claims about these very same programs that are designed to justify what the U.S. government has done and to glorify President Obama. The New York Times helpfully shields these officials–who are not blowing any whistles, but acting as government spokespeople–from being identified, and then mindlessly regurgitates their assertions as fact. It’s standard government stenography, administration press releases masquerading as in-depth news articles.

He added that

when the ACLU sued on behalf of Awlaki’s father seeking to enjoin Obama from killing his son, the Obama Department of Justice invoked the “state secrets” privilege, insisting that the evidence against Awlaki was so secret that national security would be jeopardized if disclosed to the court: the very same alleged evidence that Obama officials are now spilling to the NY Times.

Indeed, the Times story does a remarkable job of conveying official justifications for the Awlaki killing–but we hear nothing from those who have questioned the government’s account and its legal rationale. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights have led the legal challenge on the Awlaki case, and issued a response (3/10/13) to the Times story.

The Times story also included information about the drone killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki. He was killed several weeks later, along with about a dozen others in Yemen. The strike was based on bad intelligence; the intended target was not among those killed.

The Times calls this

a tragic error and, for the Obama administration, a public relations disaster, further muddying the moral clarity of the previous strike on his father and fueling skepticism about American assertions of drones’ surgical precision.

It is a revealing passage.  While there is bound to be greater concern for the killing of an American citizen, killing a dozen innocent people by accident is a tragedy in its own right. The fact that one of them was American apparently made the killings a “public relations disaster,” which is a rather crass–but all too common–way to describe what happened when the United States kills innocents.

As for the “moral clarity” of the Awlaki drone strike being “muddied,” the Times story was itself an effort to allow the U.S. government ample room to make that “moral” case;  the paper did very little to “muddy” up the mostly anonymous justifications of the government.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.