Gavel Grab

Targeted Killings Memo Prompts Heightened Scrutiny

NBC News made public a Justice Department memo revealing the Obama administration’s legal reasoning behind targeted killings of U.S. citizens accused of being terror suspects. The report sparked new scrutiny of U.S.-ordered targeted killings and calls for an oversight role by the courts.

“This is a chilling document,” Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, told NBC News. “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.”

A New York Times editorial was headlined, “To Kill an American.” It referred to the armed drone killing of Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen (see Gavel Grab) and said about President Obama:

“Going forward, he should submit decisions like this one to review by Congress and the courts. If necessary, Congress could create a special court to handle this sort of sensitive discussion, like the one it created to review wiretapping. This dispute goes to the fundamental nature of our democracy, to the relationship among the branches of government and to their responsibility to the public.”

At The Atlantic online, Andrew Cohen said the Justice Department memo might be considered “a breathtaking vitiation of the most basic constitutional right that Americans have — the right not to be suddenly killed by our government without any judicial review, based alone on secret evidence and classified accusations leveled by and to executive branch officials.” At the same time its conclusions have not been tested by the courts and it could be considered an aggressive legal brief.

Other coverage included James Downie in a Washington Post blog,  ”The Justice Department’s chilling ‘targeted killings’ memo;” Christian Science Monitor,  ”Can drone strikes target U.S. citizens? Critics say rules are vague;” Washington Post, “Brennan nomination exposes criticism on targeted killings and secret Saudi base.”

To learn more about protecting civil liberties in troubled times, see the JAS issues page on the topic.

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