(Our source of the legal advice. A good, but unsatisfactory, start.)
On Saturday, the NYT published an article on the legal advice that underpinned the US attack in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Unfortunately, the advice itself is yet to be published, so we can only comment on the NYT's extracts, but this is nonetheless an interesting start. Clearly, the legal advice on so sensitive a topic should be released, even if the intelligence and intelligence methods that are operationally critical cannot be disclosed.
We are told that the Department of Justice (DOJ) advice runs to "roughly 50 pages"; this is not surprising, as it has to address a number of difficult issues in international law - both LOAC and IHRL - and US domestic law as both Awlaki and Khan were US citizens. The first key point on legality is the supremacy of international law over US domestic law in these cases, as irrespective of the US legal position, if an action was illegal under international law, it would be illegal, period. Of course, there could be circumstances under which an action is legal under international law and illegal under US law, in which case US law would govern US government actions; however, the supremacy of international law over (any State's) domestic law means that the converse cannot be true.
"Other assertions about Mr. Awlaki included that he was a leader of the group, which had become a “cobelligerent” with Al Qaeda, and he was pushing it to focus on trying to attack the United States again."
As this blog has rehearsed, the challenge in determining whether or not it is legal to use force against an individual in an international or non-international armed conflict (IAC or NIAC) is down to their combatant status, by ensuring that States do not attack civilians. As the "Basic Rule" in Article 48(1) of the 1st Additional Protocol 1977 (AP I) states concisely for IACs,
"... the Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives."
For NIACs, discrimination is found in Article 13 of the 2nd Additional Protocol (AP II). Only if someone has combatant status - defined for IACs in Article 43 of AP I, and by implication in Article 13(3) of AP II for NIACs - can they be attacked. Only once combatant status in an IAC through membership or in a NIAC by Direct Participation in Hostilities is established can a targeting decision move on to the questions of military advantage, proportionality and humanity.
Hence the importance of establishing Mr Awlaki's status as a "cobelligerent" with AQ. However, this raises more questions than it answers, begging the question of what is the belligerent status or otherwise of AQ and the United States - the implication is that AQ is involved in a transnational IAC, but this is unstated.
(Not all law enforcement operations need to look like this....)
But then the NYT report says this:
"The lawyers were also told that capturing him alive among hostile armed allies might not be feasible if and when he were located."
Which is odd, because this is the language of law enforcement and human rights law - that we need to arrest criminals and that the use of lethal force (the most significant violation of UDHR Art 3 and ICCPR Art 6(1) Right to Life imaginable) is only legitimate when killing a suspect is the only way to avoid an imminent threat to the lives of others (eg suicide bombers). So did the US consider Awlaki an IAC or NIAC combatant or not? And if not, on what imminence grounds did it use lethal force?
The NYT again:
"The document’s authors argued that “imminent” risks could include those by an enemy leader who is in the business of attacking the United States whenever possible, even if he is not in the midst of launching an attack at the precise moment he is located."
If true, this is a troublingly expansive notion of imminence. Imminent threat to life in law enforcement practice has been understood to mean armed suicide bombers ready to detonate their bombs, or kidnappers holding a gun to the head of hostages. This is a million miles from someone who is "not in the midst of launching an attack at the precise moment he is located" - which is much more like the definition of an IAC combatant or a NIAC commander who is fulfilling a continuous combat function of an organised armed group, which brings us back to the key question of what type of conflict (if any) does the US believe it was engaged in with Mr. Awlaki?
Releasing the legal advice should answer this question. And only then we can discuss what the implications for US law are of killing US citizens in this manner.