Rights groups criticize Burr after report he called for killing U.S. citizen

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. listens on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 9, 2014.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. listens on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 9, 2014. AP

Civil liberties groups raised concerns Monday about reports that U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, had called in 2013 for the CIA to hunt down and kill an American citizen who’d become a top al Qaida operative, rather than capturing him for trial.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch said the case of Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, who was eventually captured, showed that Congress, including Burr, had failed in its oversight role by promoting the killing of a human being instead of demanding a court hearing or public explanation.

A New York Times report earlier this month described the Justice Department and members of Congress fighting over what to do about Farekh.

The Times then reported Sunday that Burr and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., had argued behind closed doors that the CIA was being too timid and that Farekh ought to be found and killed. Farekh, a native of Texas, was thought at the time to be a top member of al Qaida in Pakistan.

Burr, who became chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in January, wasn’t available to comment on the article, according to his office.

“It’s very disturbing . . . ,” said Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the ACLU. “One of the things that will happen now because Al Farekh was captured is that the government will be compelled to make its case in public to explain why this guy is dangerous.”

It’s just the latest incident to cast a shadow on the use of the controversial drone program. The case reignited debate over whether it’s appropriate to kill American citizens without trial. Last week, President Barack Obama apologized for a January strike against Pakistani terrorists that also killed two hostages, including an American.

It’s thought that only one U.S. citizen has been approved for assassination based on secret intelligence with the president’s approval. Radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki was killed Sept. 30, 2011, when an unmanned U.S. drone fired missiles at his vehicle as it drove through the desert. Also killed in the strike was Samir Khan, another U.S. citizen from Charlotte, N.C., and an al Qaida propagandist. Khan was not an intended target.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Farekh, 29, was born in Texas. Around 2007, he was studying at the University of Manitoba in Canada when he sold all his belongings and moved to Pakistan to join the fight against U.S. forces. He quickly rose up the al Qaida ranks.

Farekh was later arrested with the help of Pakistani security forces and turned over to U.S. authorities. Earlier this month, he appeared before a federal judge in Brooklyn, N.Y., on charges of conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.

One counterterrorism expert said the Farekh case was more the exception than the rule.

Phillip Lohaus, a research fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, pointed out in an interview that the United States has a complicated relationship with Pakistan. He said several past cooperative efforts had failed to produce positive results. Lohaus said U.S. leaders, including Burr, must weigh the risks of not acting against the possibility that those individuals might conduct terrorist attacks.

“Ideally, terrorists would be captured and interrogated, but oftentimes that’s not possible,” Lohaus said.