(WASHINGTON) — To kill or not to kill? Under what conditions can or should the United States government target and kill — without trial — a U.S. citizen suspected of plotting terrorism?
On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder will deliver a key speech on national security issues and is expected to provide the most detailed terms to date on the U.S. drone campaign and the U.S. government’s legal authority to target and kill U.S. citizens such as Anwar al-Awlaki, a suspected high-profile al Qaeda recruiter.
According to administration officials, Holder is expected to say that U.S. citizens believed to be planning terrorist plots against this nation and deemed to be an imminent threat can be killed without a trial or conviction.
Although Awlaki was clearly a top terrorist target, two other U.S. citizens have been killed by American strikes in Yemen, including Awlaki’s son, though those deaths have been viewed as “collateral damage” and were not specifically targeted.
Awlaki was killed in a Sept. 30, 2011, drone strike along with Samir Khan, another American citizen from North Carolina who had never been charged by the Justice Department with a crime. Khan was alleged to have been a prolific propagandist for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and main force behind the online publication Inspire, an English-language al Qaeda magazine dedicated to violent jihad and how-to-ideas on terrorist attacks.
Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was also killed by the United States when he reportedly ran away from the family home in Yemen in an attempt to try and find his father. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was born in the United States had gone to Yemen to be with family, was killed weeks after his father’s death in another drone strike along with two other alleged al Qaeda operatives he may have been staying with.
The issue of being able to target and kill U.S. citizens in counter-terrorism operations was first addressed by then Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in February 2010.
“We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community. If…we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that,” Blair told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Holder’s remarks are expected to provide some insight into the Justice Department’s legal guidance and memos from the Office of Legal Counsel authorizing the targeting of Americans.
The New York Times reported on the existence of the memos in October 2011. After ABC News filed a Freedom of Information Act requests to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel concerning the memos, the department said that they could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any documents on the subject of Awlaki or the justified targeting and killing of U.S. citizens in counter-terrorism operations.
The legality of the program was addressed by presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) who denounced the Obama administration for the controversial tactic.
“According to the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Americans are never to be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The Constitution is not some aspirational statement of values, allowing exceptions when convenient, but rather, it is the law of the land. It is the basis of our Republic and our principal bulwark against tyranny. Last week’s assassination of two American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, is an outrage and a criminal act carried out by the President and his administration,” Paul said in an Oct. 10, 2011, statement.
Officials have previously acknowledged that the Justice Department and the National Security Council were highly involved in drafting the authorities when they were first disclosed by DNI Blair.
Before his death, top counter-terrorism officials acknowledged that Awlaki and al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen to be the top terrorism concern to the United States.
“I actually consider al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with al-Awlaki as a leader within that organization probably the most significant risk to the U.S. homeland,” Michael Leiter said before Congress last February when he was the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
Awlaki was linked to numerous terrorism investigations in the United States, serving as a key individual espousing terrorist acts in his sermons, which were posted online. Army Major Nidal Hasan had exchanged emails with Awlaki before he killed 13 people and wounded more than 30 in an assault on Fort Hood in November 2009.
Awlaki is believed to have inspired several other terror plots in the U.S. as well and was key in providing operational instructions to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in the attempted Christmas Day underwear bombing of Northwest flight 253.
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