The NYT has a very interesting story on the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki for a drone strike. Of particular interest is the story’s account of the efforts by academics-turned-government-lawyers to ensure that targeting al-Awlaki would be legal. Here’s a taste:
David Barron and Martin Lederman had a problem. As lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, it had fallen to them to declare whether deliberately killing Mr. Awlaki, despite his citizenship, would be lawful, assuming it was not feasible to capture him. The question raised a complex tangle of potential obstacles under both international and domestic law, and Mr. Awlaki might be located at any moment.
According to officials familiar with the deliberations, the lawyers threw themselves into the project and swiftly completed a short memorandum. It preliminarily concluded, based on the evidence available at the time, that Mr. Awlaki was a lawful target because he was participating in the war with Al Qaeda and also because he was a specific threat to the country. . . .
But as months passed, Mr. Barron and Mr. Lederman grew uneasy. They told colleagues there were issues they had not adequately addressed, particularly after reading a legal blog that focused on a statute that bars Americans from killing other Americans overseas. In light of the gravity of the question and with more time, they began drafting a second, more comprehensive memo, expanding and refining their legal analysis and, in an unusual step, researching and citing dense thickets of intelligence reports supporting the premise that Mr. Awlaki was plotting attacks. . .
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.