US defends killing Americans who join al Qaeda


The Obama administration asserted on Monday a right to kill Americans overseas who are plotting attacks against the United States, laying out specific details for the first time about a policy that critics argue violates US and international law.
US Attorney General Eric Holder said Americans who have joined al Qaeda or its affiliates can be targeted for lethal strikes if there is an imminent threat to the United States and capturing them is not feasible. In a speech to the Northwestern University School of Law, Holder did not refer directly to the CIA drone strike last year that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born Muslim cleric who joined al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate and directed many attacks.
“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 Qaeda in a foreign land – is among the gravest that government leaders can face,” he said.
“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 said.US officials have linked Awlaki to several plots against the United States, including the 2009 Christmas Day attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a US commercial airliner as it arrived in Detroit from Amsterdam with a bomb hidden in his underwear.
Holder received a standing ovation when he entered the crowded auditorium but departed to perfunctory applause as some in the audience expressed surprise by his remarks. A question and answer session was canceled, the event organizers said.
Civil liberties groups have decried the programme as effectively a green light to assassinate Americans without due process in the courts under the US constitution, a charge that Holder flatly rejected. Court approval for such strikes was unnecessary, he said, adding “the president may use force abroad against a senior operational leader of a foreign terrorist organization with which the United States is at war – even if that individual happens to be a US citizen”.
That drew sharp criticism from some in the audience. A third-year law school student, Russell Sherman, called such strikes “assassination”. Scott Hiley, a language professor at Northwestern University, said Holder employed “endlessly circular reasoning” to try to explain the policy.
President Barack Obama and his aides have fiercely defended their stand on national security in the face of criticism from Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail that terrorism suspects are treated too leniently. Holder said the use of lethal force against Americans abroad would have to comply with several principles governing the law of war, including ensuring the target was of military value and that steps were taken to limit collateral damage. “The principle of humanity requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering,” he said, but added that “these principles do not forbid the use of stealth or technologically advanced weapons.”
A US official said there was fierce debate within the administration about whether Holder should give the speech, questioning if it would assuage or irritate Obama’s liberal backers who have been concerned that his policies were too close to that of his predecessor, President George W Bush.
“The targeted killing programme raises profound legal and moral questions that should be subjected to public debate, and constitutional questions that should be considered by the judiciary,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.


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