According to NBC News, a confidential Justice Department memo concluded that the United States government is allowed to order the killing of U.S. citizens if they are suspected of being “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida even if there is zero evidence of an attack.
The memo which is 16 pages, details the reasoning behind the Obama administration’s policies. Drone strikes have been increased against al-Qaida suspects abroad, even those who are American citizens. For example, the drone strike in September of 2011 in Yemen killed two U.S. citizens who were operatives with al-Qaida.
“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 memo states.
The memo describes a three-part test that would make the killings of American lawful. The suspect will need to be an imminent threat and capturing the suspect must be “infeasible, and the strike must be conducted according to ‘law of war principles.'”
The memo is called “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force.” Members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees were given the memo back in June by officials within the administration. They had to agree to keep the memo confidential.
“This is a chilling document,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU. “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.” The memo “redefines the word imminence in a way that deprives the word of its ordinary meaning.”
The memo also says the following about the killing of American citizens suspected of having ties with al-Qaida:
“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.”