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As Outrage Erupts, Obama Administration Defends its Targeted Killings of U.S. Citizens Overseas

Attorney General Eric Holder gave a broad defense of the chillingly expansive authority that the United States claims to be able to kill people, including its own citizens.
 
 
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 AMY GOODMAN: The Obama administration has offered its most expansive defense to date of its policy authorizing the assassination of U.S. citizens abroad. In a speech at Chicago’s Northwestern University, Attorney General Eric Holder outlined what the White House billed as the legal rationale for its claimed right to kill U.S. citizens who belong to al-Qaeda or associated forces. Holder said it’s preferable to capture suspected terrorists when possible, but claimed the government also reserves the right to use lethal force. Specifically, Holder said the U.S. can target those who play an operational role in attacks that pose an imminent threat.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: We must also recognize that there are instances where our government has the clear authority—and, I would argue, the responsibility—to defend the United States through the appropriate and lawful use of lethal force. This principle has long been established under both U.S. and international law. In response to the attacks perpetrated and the continuing threat posed by al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, Congress has authorized the president use all necessary and appropriate force against those groups. Because the United States is in an armed conflict, we are authorized to take action against enemy belligerence under international law. The Constitution empowers the president to protect the nation from any imminent threat of violent attack. And international law recognizes the inherent right of national self-defense. None of this is changed by the fact that we are not in a conventional war.

It is an unfortunate but undeniable fact that some of the threats that we face come from a small number of United States citizens who have decided to commit violent attacks against their own country from abroad. Based on generations-old legal principles and Supreme Court decisions handed down during World War II, as well as during this current conflict, it’s clear that United States citizenship alone does not make—does not make such individuals immune from being targeted.

AMY GOODMAN: Holder’s speech comes five months after a U.S. drone killed the U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Another U.S. citizen, the Saudi-born Samir Khan, was also killed in the attack. A drone in Yemen two weeks later killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, also a U.S. citizen. The Obama administration has steadfastly refused to provide the specific legal case behind the killing of the three.

In keeping with White House policy, during his remarks Holder refused to even confirm the existence of the  CIA-Joint Special Operations Command drone program that carried out the attacks. Holder’s speech was widely seen as the Obama administration’s response to a hail of criticism and legal challenges after more than two years of keeping its assassination program under a cloak of secrecy.

Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit seeking the release of government records on the drone strikes that killed the U.S. citizens in Yemen last year. The suit alleges the government has failed to adequately respond to the Freedom of Information Act requests and has unfairly invoked state secrecy privilege in refusing to disclose the information. The  New York Times has filed a similar suit.

For more, we’re joined by Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.

Welcome to  Democracy Now!

HINA SHAMSI: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: This was a major address yesterday that perhaps the  ACLU helped bring on or forced to make happen. What do you make of what Attorney General Eric Holder said?

 
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