WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has the right to order the killing of American citizens overseas if they are senior al-Qaida leaders who pose an imminent terrorist threat and cannot reasonably be captured, Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday.
"Any decision to use lethal force against a United States citizen — even one intent on murdering Americans and who has become an operational leader of al-Qaida in a foreign land — is among the gravest that government leaders can face," Holder said in a speech at Northwestern University's law school in Chicago. "The American people can be — and deserve to be — assured that actions taken in their defense are consistent with their values and their laws."
Holder's discussion of lethal force against U.S. citizens did not mention any individual by name, but his address was clearly animated by the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior figure in al-Qaida's Yemeni affiliate. Al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September.
Since that operation, the Obama administration has faced calls to explain the legal framework behind its decision to target al-Awlaki and to release at least portions of a still-classified memorandum by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel that contains its evidence, reasoning and conclusions.
Holder's speech represented the administration's most elaborate public explanation to date on targeted killings. And it followed a prolonged internal debate about how to balance the need to inform the public about one of the most extraordinary decisions a government can take, without explicitly acknowledging the ongoing classified drone program.
Among the most revealing parts of the speech was Holder's discussion of some of the factors the administration reviews before deciding that an individual represents an "imminent threat." He said the critical factors include the "relevant window of opportunity to act, the possible harm that missing the window would cause to civilians and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks against the United States."
John Bellinger, who served as a legal adviser to the State Department in the George W. Bush administration, said Holder's "flexible definition of imminent threat is absolutely appropriate as applied to terrorist planners, but it may be unsettling to many in the international community who criticized President Bush for his principle of pre-emption."