A Question for Jeffrey Goldberg

By Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, November 17, 2010, 5:59 PM

I have a lot of regard for Jeffrey Goldberg, and partly for that reason, I'm a little taken aback by these comments made to Mother Jones concerning Anwar Al-Aulaqi. Goldberg has been on overdrive recently about new airport security rules, and he seems to see some connection between those rules and the Aulaqi case. As quoted by Nick Baumann, he said the following:

This is tremendous power. This is the government accruing more and more and more power. I just think you're dealing with a principle that's completely divorced from grossness of who Anwar al-Awlaki is [how reprehensible and unsympathetic he is, etc], which is that he has American citizenship and the President has decided to kill an American. I would like an open discussion [about that.] That is an incredible power grab. Put aside who [al-Awlaki] is and where he lives: the man is an American citizen and [the President] has taken upon himself to say I'm going to go and [kill] an American citizen. It's certainly heavier than "I'm going to allow the government to grope the genitals of American citizens". . . .

I don't think enough proof has been presented that [al-Awlaki] is an actual operator of terrorist cells, that he's actually directing the actual murder of others. I think he's fundamentally functioning as a propagandist. . . .

Once you cross this bridge. . . . no matter who he is or what he's said you have a situation where the American government is pursuing the assassination of American citizen.

I'm sympathetic to the purity of [Glenn] Greenwald's position on this. How is it the government can make a decision without oversight that it's going to seek the drone assassination of an American citizen. . . .

As hawkish as I am I'm just not comfortable [with this]. I don't want to be represented by a government that without judicial and congressional oversight and the benefit of courts decides to assassinate an American citizen. What I'm saying is I'd like to see more evidence. . . . I do see it as a continuum. . . . get the government out of my pants, keep the government from killing American citizens without judicial proceedings.

I'm going to resist the temptation to ask Goldberg to explain exactly how there is a continuum between genital groping at airports and targeting an individual in an overseas military conflict. Suffice it to say that the two actions, in many different ways, don't seem to me to reside on the same spectrum.

I have, rather, only one question, on which I would love Goldberg's thoughts--either on his blog or on this one:

Imagine for a moment that you are factually incorrect and that the government does have powerful, reliable intelligence that Al Aulaqi has assumed an operation role in AQAP--or at least, that officials believe they have such intelligence. Imagine, in other words, that senior members of the Obama administration are not actively lying. And imagine as well that their sense of Al Aulaqi's location is not wildly wrong--in other words, that he is camped out in some part of Yemen over which the Yemeni government's capacity to exercise law enforcement authority is impaired. What action do you propose? Are you suggesting that the proper posture of the federal government in such a situation is paralysis? Are you suggesting that it be obliged to undertake a capture operation, with all the risks to forces that that involves? Or should we perhaps pause to bulk up Yemen's capacity as a state and hope that Al Aulaqi will compliantly stay put while we do? Put more succinctly, what's the realistic alternative to reserving the option of lethal force?