Avoiding Confusion About Drone Assassinations in One Easy Step


The New York Times has a long piece this weekend about Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico native who joined al-Qaeda and was killed in 2011 by a drone attack. Part of the piece is about the legal justification for killing an American citizen without due process, which was laid out first in a short memorandum written by David Barron and Martin Lederman and then again in a longer memorandum:

Due to return to academia in the fall of 2010, the two lawyers finished their second Awlaki memorandum, whose reasoning was widely approved by other administration lawyers, that summer. It had ballooned to about 63 pages but remained narrowly tailored to Mr. Awlaki’s circumstances, blessing lethal force against him without addressing whether it would also be permissible to kill citizens, like low-ranking members of Al Qaeda, in other situations.

Nearly three years later, a version of the legal analysis portions would become public in the “white paper,” which stripped out all references to Mr. Awlaki while retaining echoes, like its discussion of a generic “senior operational leader.” Divorced from its original context and misunderstood as a general statement about the scope and limits of the government’s authority to kill citizens, the free-floating reasoning would lead to widespread confusion.

I would just like to say that there’s an easy way to restore the memorandum’s original context and eliminate any possible misunderstanding about the scope and limits of the government’s authority to kill citizens. Right?

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