If the US president can order the assassination of Americans overseas, what are the limits to his power?

Posted on 11 March 2013 by nsharkey

An article published in the New York Times (March 9 2013) gives great insight into the targeting of US citizens abroad. For the first time we get details of intelligence gathering and the enormous resources that the CIA used to track down and kill US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki.

The article talks about one bungled attempt to put a tracking device on the suitcase of a woman to become al-Aulaqi’s third wife:

“In its most exotic effort to track the cleric, the C.I.A. worked with Danish intelligence to use Morten Storm, a Danish convert who had befriended Mr. Awlaki, to put a tracking device on the suitcase of a woman who had agreed to become the cleric’s third wife. The plan failed when Mr. Awlaki’s wary associates discarded the suitcase. But Mr. Storm also told the authorities that he communicated with Mr. Awlaki via a courier; it is not clear whether that courier eventually helped lead the C.I.A. to Mr. Awlaki’s location.”

This is the most detailed article that I have read on the legal twists and turns involved and on how fragile the intelligence gathering is. It relies on some very unreliable sources and that is why it is so prone to error.

The killing of al-Awlaki’s 16 year old son is a good example. Born in Denver, al-Awlaki junior had no interest in terrorist activity. He was a normal US teenager who updated his Facebook page regularly.

“Then, on Oct. 14, a missile apparently intended for an Egyptian Qaeda operative, Ibrahim al-Banna, hit a modest outdoor eating place in Shabwa. The intelligence was bad: Mr. Banna was not there, and among about a dozen men killed was the young Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who had no connection to terrorism and would never have been deliberately targeted.

It was 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. The damage was only compounded when anonymous officials at first gave the younger Mr. Awlaki’s age as 21, prompting his grieving family to make public his birth certificate.

He had been born in Denver, said the certificate from the Colorado health department. In the United States, at the time his government’s missile killed him, the teenager would have just reached driving age.”

This example shows clearly how the alleged incredible accuracy of the new drone weapons leads to the amplification of wrong decisions. They can precisely and surgically kill the wrong people.

It is well worth reading the full article 5 page article: How a U.S. Citizen Came to Be in America’s Cross Hairs


Noel SharkeyPhD, DSc FIET, FBCS CITP FRIN FRSA is Professor of AI and Robotics and Professor of Public Engagement at the University of Sheffield and was an EPSRC Senior Media Fellow (2004-2010).

Categorized | Analysis, News

Comments are closed.