Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul, taking a break from campaigning… (Jim Cole / Associated Press )
Ron Paul, the Texas congressman who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, on Friday criticized the Obama administration’s action in killing Anwar Awlaki, the American-born cleric who advocated jihad against the United States.
Paul was the strongest critic on the Republican side in condemning the attack, which was praised by other candidates including Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a libertarian like Paul, also questioned the tactic of killing a U.S. citizen without due process.
Awlaki, a prominent voice in Yemen’s Al Qaeda affiliate, and Samir Khan, an editor of a jihadist magazine, were killed in an air attack in Yemen by what U.S. and Yemeni officials say was an operation that involved U.S. military and intelligence assets. The attack is part of a campaign against Islamic terrorists that included the killing of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in May in Pakistan.
After a campaign stop at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, Paul told reporters that Americans need to think about such actions because Awlaki was born in the United States and was entitled to the same rights as all U.S. citizens.
"No, I don't think that's a good way to deal with our problems,” Paul said in a videotape of the questioning by reporters. Awlaki “was never tried or charged for any crimes. No one knows if he killed anybody. We know he might have been associated with the ‘underwear bomber.’ But if the American people accept this blindly and casually that we now have an accepted practice of the president assassinating people who he thinks are bad guys. I think it's sad.”
Paul went on to compare the situation to Timothy McVeigh, convicted of blowing up a truck bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The attack killed 168 people and injured more than 800 people.
“I think, what would people have said about Timothy McVeigh? We didn't assassinate him, who certainly had done it,” Paul said. McVeigh “was put through the courts then executed. … To start assassinating American citizens without charges, we should think very seriously about this.”
Paul argued that the killing of Awlaki was different from the attack on Bin Laden because Bin Laden was involved in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
“I voted for authority to go after those individuals responsible for 9/11,” Paul said. “Nobody ever suggested that he [Awlaki] was participant in 9/11.”
Paul has been running behind the leaders in the GOP race for the presidential nod, but has been as high as third or fourth in many national polls, running at around 10%. Johnson has been far back in the pack, running in the very low single digits.
In an interview with Fox News, Johnson made the same points as Paul, warning that killing an American citizen without due process set a dangerous precedent despite the need for the United States to remain vigilant against terrorism.
Paul and Johnson represent the neo-isolationist wing of the GOP, but other parts of the Republican Party have advocated a foreign policy based on a more robust U.S. role abroad. Perry, the leader in most polls for the GOP nomination though his star has faded in recent days, praised the attack.
“I want to congratulate the United States military and intelligence communities – and President Obama for sticking with the government's long-standing and aggressive anti-terror policies – for getting another key international terrorist,” Perry said in a prepared statement.
Perry went on to call the death of Awlaki an “important victory in the war on terror.”
[Updated at 10:01 a.m. Sept. 30: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also praised the Obama administration in a prepared statement.
“I commend the president, the members of the intelligence community, our service members, and our allies for their continued efforts to keep Americans safe," Romney stated.]
Ironically, the libertarian opposition to the attack was similar to the argument by the American Civil Liberties Union in its disapproval.
"The targeted killing program violates both U.S. and international law,” ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said in a prepared statement. “As we've seen today, this is a program under which American citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept secret not just from the public but from the courts.
"The government's authority to use lethal force against its own citizens should be limited to circumstances in which the threat to life is concrete, specific and imminent. It is a mistake to invest the president – any president – with the unreviewable power to kill any American whom he deems to present a threat to the country,” he stated.