Jacob Sullum
After FBI agents took custody of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Dec. 25, 2009, they told him he had the right to remain silent. For Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who allegedly helped plan Abdulmutallab's mission, that right was more like an obligation, enforced by Hellfire missiles fired at his car from remotely controlled CIA aircraft in northern Yemen last week.

President Obama's policy regarding people linked to terrorism is clear: They are to be treated like criminal defendants with constitutional rights, except when they are treated like enemy soldiers in the heat of battle, subject to summary execution from a distance. Although this flexibility has obvious advantages in waging the never-ending war on terrorism, it threatens to transform the elected executive of a republic into a dictator with the power of life and death over his subjects.

That danger may seem theoretical in light of Awlaki's public record of fomenting violence against Americans. Regarding the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, the month before Abdulmutallab was caught with plastic explosives in his underwear, Awlaki bragged: "Nidal Hasan is a student of mine, and I am proud of this. ... What he did was a heroic act, a wonderful operation. ... I support what he did, and I call upon anyone who calls himself a Muslim, and serves in the U.S. Army, to follow in the footsteps of Nidal Hasan." Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square last year, also cited Awlaki as an inspiration.

The U.S. government claims Awlaki, a U.S. citizen whom experts perceived as a threat mainly because of his rhetorical appeal to Muslims in English-speaking countries, not only advocated terrorist attacks but helped plan them as a leader of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet the extent of his involvement remains unclear, and the Obama administration seems determined to keep it that way.

Announcing Awlaki's death last Friday, Obama called him "the leader of external operations for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula" -- the first time he had ever been described that way. The president also claimed Awlaki "took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans."

At a press briefing later that day, four different reporters asked White House spokesman Jay Carney for evidence to back up those allegations. "I don't have anything for you on that," Carney said, refusing even to acknowledge that the U.S. government had killed Awlaki, let alone explain the rationale for the secret decision that marked him for death.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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