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When fighting militants, Obama takes the Bush road

Analysis The Obama administration is just as willing to ignore rights and legal process to protect national security as its predecessor.

Anwar al Awlaki, a Yemen-based cleric and member of al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula, is wanted by the United States. How wanted? Although Mr al Awlaki is a US citizen and presumably has the right under US law to a court trial, his name is now on an Obama administration hit list. The existence of a hit list that includes US citizens is another reminder that when it comes to fighting militants, there is little difference between Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W Bush.

Mr Obama has ratcheted up the war in Afghanistan, sending an additional 30,000 troops. He has dramatically increased the number of drone attacks against suspected al Qa'eda and Taliban members along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. In September, he ordered a US military strike in Somalia to kill an alleged Kenyan terrorist. Now we learn that the "engagement" president has continued Mr Bush's post-9/11 policy of targeting US citizens if they are deemed to be involved in organising or carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States or its interests abroad.

The White House is not denying the existence of hit lists or Mr al Awlaki's inclusion on them. Asked by a lawmaker last week whether there were guidelines for establishing when a "radical-born cleric" had "crossed the line" from expressing unpopular views to becoming a military target, Washington's top intelligence official said it was not a judgment made lightly. "We don't target people for free speech. We target them for taking action that threatens Americans," said Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, who oversees the Central Intelligence Agency and 15 other US intelligence agencies, as well as their combined annual budget of $75 billion (Dh275bn).

The addition of Mr al Awlaki's name to lists of individuals targeted for capture or death by the CIA and the US military's clandestine Joint Special Operations Command was first disclosed last month by The Washington Post. The CIA list had the names of three Americans and the JSOC list four, the paper reported, citing an unnamed intelligence official. US authorities say they have linked Mr al Awlaki to the army psychiatrist who is accused of killing 13 people at an army base in Texas in November. They also say he was in contact with the 23-year-old Nigerian accused of attempting to bomb a US airliner in December.

US covert operators have already drawn Mr al Awlaki within their sights. A December 24 attack against a compound in Yemen where he was believed to be meeting with other regional al Qa'eda officials did not result in his death. The strike was approved by Mr Obama, the Post said. For reasons of politics less than law or morality, Mr Obama, a lawyer by training, would probably not admit to any ambivalence about the use of assassination, whether against Americans or non-Americans.

Since last fall, there has been a growing sense in Washington that the president may not have the backbone - or more specifically, a male anatomical attribute - to aggressively defend US interests. The perception was fuelled by what critics saw as a needlessly protracted debate about the Afghan troop escalation and peaked in December with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian "underwear bomber". A headline last month in The New York Times summed up the mood. "Wimp or warrior?" it asked.

There is no swelling congressional or public brouhaha over the assassination revelations, either, which is a reminder of just how terrified the US public appears to be about the possibility of another 9/11-style attack. By contrast, when newspaper accounts in the mid-1970s revealed for the first time that the CIA had been involved in attempts to assassinate foreign leaders and overthrow foreign governments, the public outcry shook Washington to its foundations, leading to congressional hearings and an executive order barring US intelligence agencies from carrying out or sponsoring assassinations.

That assassination ban began to loosen in the 1990s as Washington pondered what to do about Saddam Hussein. It was shelved after 9/11, which has reshaped how US laws and the constitutional powers granted the president, Congress and the courts are interpreted. Whether the result represents a necessary or desirable adaptation to changed circumstances or an erosion of constitutionally guaranteed legal protections is a matter of debate - a debate that is unlikely to occur in the current political climate, as indicated by the victory speech by Scott Brown, the upstart Republican winner in last month's Massachusetts senate election:

"I believe that our constitution and laws exist to protect this nation - they do not grant rights and privileges to enemies in wartime. In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them." cnelson@thenational.ae

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