It is legal for the U.S. government to kill American citizens with targeted drone strikes if it has determined the individuals are high-ranking al Qaeda officials who pose "an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States," according to a Justice Department white paper. The document explains the legal reasoning behind the Obama administration's process of killing U.S. citizens without formally charging or bringing them to trial, often by drone strikes.
The document, attained by NBC News, is the most detailed look at the government's rationale for targeting Americans even if they don't appear to be involved in an active plot to attack the United States. In 2011, the United States used drones to kill two supposed al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, neither of whom had ever been charged with a crime. The memo says that such targeted killings are not assassinations because they are self defense, and are not war crimes:
A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination. In the Department's view, a lethal operation conducted against a U.S. citizen whose conduct poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States would be a legitimate act of national self-defense that would not violate the assassination ban. Similarly, the use of lethal force, consistent with the laws of war, against an individual who is a legitimate military target would be lawful and would not violate the assassination ban.
The memo allows for a very broad definition of "imminent threat," stating that the condition doesn't require a suspect to be actively engaged in planning a terror plot:
The condition that an operational leader present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the Obama administration for access to more information about such targeted killing of citizens, called the document "chilling." Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said the white paper gives the administration way too much leeway when it comes to determining who can be targeted, and why:
Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen. … It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined, and it's easy to see how they could be manipulated.
Lawmakers have also recently requested more information on the topic from the administration, with senators writing to Obama that they needed access to legal opinions outlining the procedure so they can determine "whether the president's power to deliberately kill American citizens is subject to appropriate limitations and safeguards."
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