Reiterating My Question for Jeffrey Goldberg

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, December 2, 2010, 7:50 AM

Two weeks ago, I posted a question for Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg in light of some remarks he made to Nick Baumann of Mother Jones objecting to the targeting of Anwar Al Aulaqi. Goldberg had expressed admiration for the pure civil libertarian view of the matter, but like most people who express this view, he did not address the question of alternatives. So I asked:

Imagine for a moment 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?

Now Goldberg has posted some additional thoughts on the subject. His bottom line remains the same:

I don't think an American president (any American president) should be allowed to order the assassination of someone who holds American citizenship without judicial review, except in cases in which that American citizen is imminently going to try to kill--not merely argue for the killing, but kill--innocent people, of whatever nationality. I don't think we want to invest such awesome power in the Executive Branch, which has a pretty awesome set of powers already.

Disappointingly, Goldberg does not address my question. So I reiterate it here. Let's assume Al Aulaqi is more than a propagandist or, at least, that the President and his people genuinely believe he is. And let us assume as well that an arrest warrant is of limited practical utility in an ungoverned space like Yemen. And let's assume as well that we may not know the precise moment at which the threat Al Aulaqi poses becomes imminent in the sense that Goldberg and Nick Baumann and the ACLU and CCR mean it. What lawful option do you allow the President that doesn't amount to waiting for bodies?