Anwar al-Awlaki, recently killed by a drone strike in Yemen, was a talented terror propagandist. “Intelligent, sophisticated, Internet-savvy, and very charismatic” is how a Yemeni counterterrorism official described him last year.
The real question, though, is whether his role was much more than that, as the U.S. government has claimed. Al-Awlaki, President Obama said on the day of the strike, “was the leader of external operations for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” a man who had taken charge of “planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans.” It was al-Awlaki’s operational responsibilities, not simply his oratorical skills, which were said to have sealed his fate.
But it’s worrying that no one without access to classified information can meaningfully respond to the president’s assertions. Whatever evidence supported the government’s decision to kill al-Awlaki is secret; indeed, even the process by which this evidence was assessed has not been officially explained.
Unlike the verdict in a criminal case, where the evidence against the defendant has been subject to challenge in adversarial proceedings before a court, the decision to kill al-Awlaki rested on undisclosed and untested grounds. For the American public, with no access to the underlying intelligence, this essentially means taking the administration’s claims on faith.
One doesn’t have to reflect long on recent history to conclude that this is a problem. It was untested and erroneous intelligence that purported to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was also, though somewhat less notoriously, faulty intelligence that led the CIA in 2004 to kidnap German-Lebanese citizen Khaled el-Masri and hold him for five months in a secret prison in Afghanistan. And according to several federal judges it was shaky and unreliable intelligence that underlied the Bush administration’s decision to hold innocent men like Turkish citizen Murat Kurnaz in military detention at Guantanamo for years.