RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DON GONYEA, host:
And I'm Don Gonyea.
The U.S. government is turning up the heat on an American-born radical cleric. His name is Anwar al-Awlaki. He's thought to be a key operative of al-Qaida's arm in Yemen. He's been linked to the Fort Hood shootings in Texas and the attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner last Christmas Day.
Several months ago, intelligence officials acknowledged he was on the CIA's capture or kill list. That means he's essentially a target for assassination. Yet al-Awlaki has not been formerly indicted for anything. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston explains.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: NPR has learned that about a month ago several U.S. lawmakers received unexpected phone call from Yemen. It was from a Dr. Nasser al-Awlaki, an accomplished academic and former Yemeni government official. He also happens to be the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico while his dad was studying in the U.S.
His father told the lawyers that his son had been falsely accused and that he wanted to sue. He said that by putting his son on the CIA's capture or kill list, the U.S. government has deprived him of his Fifth Amendment right - the right to due process.
Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Former Deputy, National Security Council): I don't think there's much of a case here.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Juan Zarate is a former deputy at the National Security Council.
Mr. ZARATE: When an individual like Anwar Awlaki joins the enemy force in an ongoing war, which the Obama administration calls a war on al-Qaida in a global context, there's very little that that American citizen can do in court to challenge what may happen to that individual in the field of battle.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Intelligence sources tell NPR that there have been almost a dozen drone and airstrikes targeting Awlaki in Yemen. So far he's escaped them all.
Not long after Dr. Awlaki called the U.S. attorneys, an interesting thing happened. The U.S. Treasury put Awlaki on their list of designated global terrorists. And then a day after that, the U.N. branded him a bona fide member of al-Qaida. Zarate says a formal indictment is next.
Mr. ZARATE: If an indictment hasn't been brought already, I would anticipate one coming, given the fact that Awlaki has crossed the line from merely being a radical ideologue to actually being an operational part of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Officials declined to comment on the record about Awlaki and the legal moves against him. In fact, he may have already been indicted and we wouldn't know about it if the indictment were under seal.
Officials said they knew that Awlaki's father was considering a suit against the government, but they wouldn't say whether that is what motivated them to put Awlaki on terrorist watch lists now. There are other possible reasons.
Professor SAM RASCOFF (New York University): I'm Sam Rascoff. I'm a law professor at NYU. I used to run intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Rascoff has been tracking Awlaki for years and watched him go from a propagandist for al-Qaida to a leader for the group.
Mr. RASCOFF: We're beginning to hear more and more of Awlaki as a senior operative, a lieutenant as it were, for Osama bin Laden, someone who's actually taking concrete terrorist decisions and actually causing operatives like the December 25th bomber to get on planes and try to blow things up.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Intelligence officials say Awlaki is thought to have actually trained a cell of foreign fighters in Yemen late last year, one of whom was the young Nigerian who allegedly tried to blow up Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. The sources claim there's no doubt about Awlaki's decision to go from al-Qaida propagandist to operative. But they haven't had to prove that in court.
Mr. RASCOFF: Here the executive is claiming the power to go ahead and target al-Awlaki for assassination without going through anything that resembles traditional legal process, most specifically without a jury conviction.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, NYU law professor Sam Rascoff.
Mr. RASCOFF: It essentially amounts to going right to the death penalty phase of things.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And shouldn't that worry us?
Mr. RASCOFF: Well, I think it ought to give us pause. It ought to make us return to our first principles and think: What are we trying to achieve here? Who is Awlaki? Is he considered more like a criminal accused in an American court by virtue of his American citizenship? Or is he something closer to an enemy fighter? In which case the fact that he happens to be an American shouldn't matter very much.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The answer to that question could become clearer in the coming days if the Justice Department makes Awlaki's indictment official.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.