WASHINGTON – The controversial killing of New Mexico-born terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last week won support from Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation who previously questioned tough White House tactics in the war on terror.
All four Democrats in New Mexico’s five-member delegation said they backed the Sept. 30 drone attack in Yemen that killed al-Awlaki. Rep. Steve Pearce, the delegation’s only Republican, also endorsed the killing.
The CIA attack sparked criticism among civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, that the American-born cleric had not been given due process rights. Some critics of the operation have suggested the United States should have captured al-Awlaki and put him on trial.
The English-speaking terrorist was considered by the U.S. government to be among the most dangerous threats to America.
Al-Awlaki was born in Las Cruces in 1971 to parents from Yemen who were in the United States for postgraduate work. Al-Awlaki’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki of Yemen, studied for a master’s degree in agricultural economics at New Mexico State University. The family is reported to have returned to Yemen in 1978.
The father sued President Barack Obama and other administration officials last year to stop them from targeting his son for death. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, the father argued that international law and the Constitution prevented the administration from killing his son unless he presented a specific imminent threat to life or physical safety and there were no other means to stop him.
U.S. officials have said al-Awlaki was an al-Qaida leader in the Arabian Peninsula who helped recruit Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian accused of attempting to blow up an airliner as it flew into Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
Obama issued a directive to the CIA to kill al-Awlaki after the failed Christmas attack.
All four Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation have been critical of some elements of the war on terror initiated by former President George W. Bush and perpetuated under Obama, including the continued operation of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both Democrats, have also spoken out against waterboarding as an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Obama has since banned waterboarding, initiated during Bush’s tenure as president.
Bingaman has long supported the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison and once called for an independent investigation of U.S. detainee policy. He also led the effort in the Senate to preserve the right of detainees being held by the U.S. to challenge the legality of their detention in court. But Bingaman said the al-Awlaki killing was justified.
“I believe the operation against al-Awlaki was justified because he was admittedly engaging in ongoing terrorist actions,” Bingaman told the Journal. “The ability to capture and try him was unavailable, and there was no ready alternative to protecting the American public.”
Udall also condoned the al-Awlaki killing.
“As a leader of al-Qaida who planned operations against U.S. targets, Anwar al-Awlaki committed despicable acts and was a fugitive from justice,” Udall said. “He deserved what he got.”
However, Udall called upon the Obama administration to share with the public a Justice Department opinion that said the killing of al-Awlaki was legal.
“Transparency is also needed here,” Udall said. “I hope the administration releases its legal opinion in his case and works with the international community to understand our rationale behind these types of attacks.”
Rep. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who is vacating his Albuquerque-based U.S. House seat to run for the U.S. Senate next year, said Obama’s order to take out al-Awlaki was justified. Heinrich called the killing “one of the most significant eliminations of a real terrorist in the last 10 years.
“The law is fairly clear that authorizes this,” Heinrich said in a Journal interview. “It’s a presidential directive and it’s limited to a very small number of people who are a threat, and an active threat not only to our country, but American citizens. We’re talking about someone who was very involved in a plot to kill a number of Americans.”
Heinrich said he respects the argument against the killing, but said that in this case, “It doesn’t wash.”
“The issues of civil liberties are important,” he said. “When I start to worry is when our government is using the law inappropriately to go after law-abiding Americans. This guy is a clear-cut, dangerous terrorist who is involved in plots that resulted in attempted, and in some cases actual, killings of Americans.”
Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said al-Awlaki was “an imminent threat to the American people.
“President Obama’s actions against al-Awlaki to protect our country from this terrorist were justified,” Lujan said.
Pearce also said Obama did the right thing in killing the terrorist, who was born in the 2nd Congressional District, which Pearce now represents. Pearce also credited the Obama administration for killing Osama bin Laden this year.
“This is a long-term process. They (Obama administration officials) don’t necessarily deserve all the credit, but they don’t also deserve to be criticized,” Pearce said. “They are letting the work go forward, and they should. The world is very unstable, and I appreciate the fact that we don’t have to worry about bin Laden and I appreciate the affirmative actions they are doing.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal