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Killing of 2 U.S. citizens violated the laws of war

Morris Davis, a professor of law at Howard University, has entered the debate about CIA-directed drone executions of American citizens, which include Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan.

In "Combatant Immunity and the Death of Anwar al-Awlaqi," Davis charges that "the CIA drone program (thoroughly supported by President Obama) violates the law of war because (the CIA) is a civilian institution, lacking combatant immunity."

As to the civilian status of the CIA, I suggest that you bear in mind that when Gen. David Petraeus (who had led U.S. forces in Afghanistan) became the present head of the CIA, he removed his military uniform.

What follows is the core of Davis' conclusion, not only about summary drone executions of U.S. citizens but also about the increasing involvement of the civilian CIA in combatant military activities.

For example, as the targeted CIA drone assassinations continue, Davis explains that, "generally, the deliberate killing of another human being is considered murder unless some legal justification provides immunity. The law of war does just that by extending combatant immunity to lawful combatants who kill in the course of armed conflict, provided they comply with the law of war."

But the CIA is a civilian intelligence agency reporting to the director of National Intelligence. Accordingly, Davis continues, "the concern over using civilian CIA personnel to conduct combat operations is not inconsequential," to say the least. And here is why: "A primary objective of the law of war is to limit the effects of war, particularly the effects on civilians and civilian objects. A fundamental law of war principle is DISTINCTION (emphasis added), which mandates uniforms or other distinctive markings to clearly denote combatants."

Petraeus should be aware — but clearly is not — that, says Davis: "The U.S. undermines the law of war by blurring the intended bright line separating combatants from civilians. The ability to bend the law to what we want it to be at any given moment diminishes us and our commitment to abide by the proper rule of law. That truly is a failure in leadership."

It's not only President Obama's failure of leadership (especially in his championing CIA Hellfire missiles). None of the battling aspirants intending to succeed Obama in the White House has said a single word about this continuing violation of the law of war by the CIA. Keep in mind that when the CIA commits "corollary damage" by killing innocent civilians in its military operations, it is not immune from accountability for those deaths — under our constitutional rule of law.

In an acutely relevant letter to The New York Times (Oct. 12), under the heading, "When the U.S. Kills an American Citizen," Neil Mullin of Montclair, N.J., writes:

"We tried high-level Nazis after World War II. Cambodia tried the criminals who slaughtered millions under Pol Pot. We could and should have done the same for Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born radical Muslim cleric hiding in Yemen. We have diminished and endangered our nation with these summary executions, however monstrous these men."

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