In a speech yesterday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the president can legally order the targeted killing of an American citizen abroad if that person poses a serious threat to the United States.
It was the first time that Holder himself publicly expressed the opinion that targeted killings of U.S. citizens is legal and constitutional.
The Attorney General spoke to a group of law students at Northwestern University in Chicago. In a lengthy address about the Obama administration's counterterrorism policies. the highlight of the speech was Holder's view of the killing of a terrorist abroad if that person happens to be a citizen of the United States and is posing a serious threat to the security of the country.
Holder told the students it is perfectly legal under U.S. law and the principles of war to target specific senior operational leaders of Al Qaeda and its associated groups. Targeted killings are not new and the AG related how, during World War II, the U.S. shot down a plane for no other reason than a commander of the Japanese forces was on the aircraft.
He went on to say that some of these senior operational leaders of terrorist groups happen to be citizens of the United States and that Americans generally have protection of the Due Process Clause under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That clause provides that the state cannot deprive a person of his or her right to life without due process of law.
Holder then argued that the Due Process Clause is not absolute in cases involving terrorists who plan attacks on American soil and that courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States, have taken a balanced approach; balancing the rights of citizens against the rights and duty of the government to protect its citizens.
Calling the decision to kill a citizen of the United States, even one who is planning to kill Americans, as being "among the gravest that government leaders can face," Holder went on to list three factors that must be present before an American can be legally targeted for death.
First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.
Although Holder did not mention him by name, the targeted death of Anwar al Awlaki gave rise to the issue of the killing of American citizens.
As reported by MSNBC, al Awlaki was killed in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011 when the convoy he was travelling in was attacked by a drone. The strike was a coordinated effort, with the approval of Yemen, of the CIA and the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command. Speaking of the operation, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, Awlaki was a primary target because his continuing efforts to plan attacks against the United States. This country is much safer as a result of the loss of Awlaki.
Al Awlaki was born in 1971 in New Mexico and obtained an engineering degree as well as a master's. He served as an Imam in mosques in San Diego, Denver, and Falls Church, Va.
He first came to the attention of the authorities after 9/11 when it was learned he had contact with some of the hijackers. Later, he had also met the "underwear bomber," Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and had an email correspondence with Nidal Malik Hasan, the army psychiatrist accused of the Fort Hood shootings.
One factor that made al-Awlaki especially dangerous is he had the ability to broadcast instructions to terrorists and recruitment propaganda from Yemen in fluent English.