Who’s Right, President Obama or Jeremy Scahill?

Since President Barack Obama graciously accepted Medea Benjamin’s intrusive questions during his speech at the National Defense University as fully legitimate, perhaps the president is edging toward answering the pointed questions by Jeremy Scahill about the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki on September 30, 2011. 

Scahill, who has become the Seymour Hersh of his generation with his books Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army and Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, makes a nuanced and deeply researched argument that the American-born cleric’s pro-jihad sermons and tapes, however offensive, were protected under the First Amendment.

Al-Awlaki corresponded with Nidal Hassan, the perpetrator of the Ft. Hood massacre, and Abdulmutallab, the so-called “shoe bomber,” but Scahill says the “available evidence” reveals no operational or tactical involvement by Al-Awlaki in their actions. At most, Scahill suggests that the cleric might have been “pushed into an alliance” with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) “after he was marked for death alongside its leaders.” Scahill quotes a David Ignatius article saying that as late as October 2009 the CIA “lacked specific evidence that [al-Awlaki] threatened the lives of Americans, the threshold for any capture-or-kill operation” against an American citizen. (Washington Post, March 26, 2010) Either the President disagreed with that CIA assessment, or new evidence changed the assessment. The thrust of Scahill’s case is that al-Awlaki was never charged with a crime nor had the US government “publicly offered any evidence that Awlaki was the AQAP ringleader they made him out to be.” 

In his wide-ranging speech, Obama delivered a prosecutor’s response, saying that al-Awlaki was “continuously trying to kill people,” “helping oversee” the 2010 plot to detonate devices on US-bound cargo planes, and was “involved in planning” the 2009 Christmas bombing attempt by Farouk Abdulmutallab. Obama said that al-Awlaki “hosted” Abdulmutallab in Yemen, “approved” the operation, “helped him tape a martyrdom video,” and gave “instructions” to blow up the plane over US soil. Unlike a prosecutor, however, the president was not required to submit the evidence for his case. In earlier litigation, Justice and Treasury department officials had labeled al-Awlaki as “operational” – even “involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism,” again without supplying evidence. The president’s sober premise seems to have been shared by top New York Times terrorism reporters Scott Shane, Mark Mazetti, and Charles Savage, who described Al-Awlaki as a “senior operative” in AQAP in a March 9 article. 

These differences will seem almost meaningless to most Americans satisfied with the narrative that al-Awlaki was a preacher stirring up lethal hatred against American civilians. Few will think the president should have tried to arrest al-Awlaki in Yemen’s desert and hauled him to Guantanamo. But the media, some Republicans and many in Congress may want to see the evidence for the president’s case, as will many at the United Nations or in the Muslim world. If Obama’s proof is insufficient, he is responsible for having executed an American citizen without probable cause. If the president refuses to make public the evidence, he has a credibility problem that may haunt him. If Scahill’s reporting is correct, it will underscore the importance of the independent media.   

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