Responding to Obama administration critics head on, Attorney General Eric Holder asserted yesterday that it is lawful for the U.S. to kill American citizens if officials deem them to be terrorists who are planning attacks on the homeland.
In a speech at Northwestern University's law school outlining the administration's counterterrorism policies, Holder said that if capturing a terrorist alive is not feasible, "Our government has the clear authority to defend the United States with lethal force.”
Holder is not the first administration official to address the issue, but he is the highest ranking and his remarks were an effort to ease the controversy over the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born radical Muslim cleric who died in an U.S. drone strike in Yemen last September.
"Some have argued that the president is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of Al Qaeda or associated forces," Holder said. "This is simply not accurate. 'Due process' and 'judicial process' are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process."
Holder's logic is not easy to digest after years of Bush administration abuses, but I reluctantly endorse it in cases such as Awalki's when there appears to have been incontrovertible evidence that he was planning an attack on the homeland.
The attorney general did continue the Obama administration's refusal to even acknowledge that a Justice Department memo on killing American citizens exists. The New York Times and ACLU have filed separate lawsuits seeking both the memo and evidence against Awlaki.
Choosing his words carefully, Holder did not say that a situation such as Awlaki's is the only kind in which it would be lawful to kill a citizen.
Rather, he said it would be lawful "at least" under those conditions. He also offered the example of a situation in which it would be lawful to kill a citizen even if all those requirements were not met: "Operations that take place on traditional battlefields."
Image from Al Jazeera, via Middle East Media Research Institute