Ron Wyden: Obama Killed Anwar al-Awlaki with Authority Granted to Him

As part of a letter asking the Administration to provide more details on its drone and/or targeting killing program, Senators Wyden, Udall, and Heinrich have judged the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki to be “a legitimate use of the authority granted the President.” (Adam Serwer first reported on this letter here). That judgement — as well as the Senators’ further comments on Awlaki — may provide further hints about the killing. Here’s the full paragraph:

Having carefully reviewed the matter, we believe that the decision to use lethal force against Anwar al-Aulaqi was a legitimate use of the authority granted to the President. As the President noted in his May 2013 speech at the National Defense University, Mr. al-Aulaqi clearly made a conscious decision to join an organized fighting force that was (and is) engaged in planning and carrying out attacks against the United States, including the 2009 Christmas Day bombing and the 2010 cargo plane plot. By taking on a leadership role in this organization, involving himself in ongoing operational planning against the United States, and demonstrating the capacity and intent to carry out these operations, he made himself a legitimate target for military action. Additionally, while the US government did not publicly acknowledge that it was attempting to kill Mr. al-Aulaqi, this fact was nonetheless widely reported in US and international media. This disclosure served as the equivalent of a wanted poster, and if Mr. al-Aulaqi had been a wrongly targeted innocent man he could have turned himself in and cleared his name. Additionally, alternative reasonable means to apprehend Mr. al-Aulaqi or otherwise deal with the threat that he posed do not appear to have been available. Finally, based on what we have been told, lethal force appears to have been used against Mr. al-Aulaqi in a manner consistent with applicable international law. [my emphasis]

Recall that for a full year, Ron Wyden kept asking whether, “the President’s authority to kill Americans [is] based on authorization from Congress or his own authority as Commander-in-Chief?” Once he saw the Awlaki memos in February, he stopped asking.

And while this paragraph doesn’t definitively answer that question, it does suggest an answer. This letter describes the President acting under authority “granted” to him, rather than inherent to the position. It describes Awlaki as having been the target of “military action.” And it concludes that, if everything they’ve been told is correct, the killing was “consistent with applicable international law.” All three of those details make it more likely the government operated under an AUMF justification than an Article II one. It also suggests that the military person pressed the actual button to kill Awlaki, given that there’s little way a CIA officer doing so would have been legal (and if that’s correct, then it means John Brennan has not made a single change to the drone program).

All that said, later in the letter, the Senators write,

We also believe the Executive Branch needs to clarify whether all lethal counterterrorism operations to date have been carried out pursuant to the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force, or whether any have been based solely on the President’s own authorities.

So even while they suggest Awlaki’s killing was authorized under the AUMF, they still profess ignorance about whether all targeted killings have been. Also note they’re asking about “lethal counterterrorism operations,” not drone killing.

Has the Government Left Minh Quang Pham “Languishing Forever”?

Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 3.55.43 PMJohn Brennan made two interesting comments about FBI interrogation at his hearing last week. First, in response to a Martin Heinrich question, he suggested that the Army Field Manual shouldn’t be the interrogation standard for the entire government because the FBI “has its own processes and procedures.”

HEINRICH: Thank you. Do you believe that all agencies of the United States government should be held to the interrogation standards that are laid out in the Army Field Manual as it — as currently required by Executive Order 13491? And do you support efforts to codify those requirements into law?

BRENNAN: The Army Field Manual certainly should govern the U.S. military’s detention and interrogation of individuals.

The FBI has its own processes and procedures and laws that govern its activities. So what I wanted to do is to make sure that, you know, appropriate sort of attention is paid to FBI as opposed to the military.

Then, when Brennan was very patiently explaining to Marco Rubio that his ideas about detention and interrogation are erroneous and stupid (my words), he said this about FBI interrogations.

BRENNAN: No. Again, it’s tailored to the circumstances. Sometimes an individual will be Mirandized. Sometimes they will not be Mirandized right away. Mirandizing an individual means only that the information that they give before then cannot be used in Article III court.

But, in fact, the FBI do a great job as far as eliciting information after they’re Mirandizing them, and so they can get information as part of that type of negotiation with them, let them know they can in fact languish forever, or we can in fact have a dialogue about it intelligently.

“They can languish forever”? I didn’t think the Sixth Amendment had a “languish forever” exception.

But Brennan’s apparent belief there is one got me thinking about Minh Quang Pham, whom I wrote about here.

Pham is a Vietnamese immigrant to the UK who traveled to Yemen in December 2010 and went on to help Samir Khan produce Inspire magazine. He was arrested to great fanfare last June, when his May 24 indictment was purportedly unsealed. Though his docket shows no sign of that unsealing; rather, it says the indictment was unsealed two months later. He returned to the UK in December 2011, where he was held in immigration detention. It’s unclear whether he’s still there — the Brits can hold someone in detention indefinitely and extradition to the US has been taking a lot of time of late — or whether he was moved here either in June when DOJ had a big dog and pony show over his arrest or in August when the docket says his previously unsealed indictment was unsealed. That’s the last thing that appears in Pham’s docket. I’ve asked SDNY for a status report but have not yet gotten an answer.

In any case, one of the last people with ties to the UK or US to spend time with Anwar al-Awlaki and, especially, Samir Khan is languishing … somewhere.