March 5, 2012

“THE AMERICAN PEOPLE can be — and deserve to be — assured that actions taken in their defense are consistent with their values and their laws.” So stated Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in a Monday speech that sought to explain the propriety of the Obama administration’s targeted drone strikes, including those against Americans. Mr. Holder’s effort was long on generalities and short on specifics. If the administration is intent on reassuring the American public, it should release the Justice Department memorandum that lays out the domestic and international strictures which, it says, undergird its drone policy.

While Mr. Holder did not mention Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical Muslim cleric was at the heart of the address at the Northwestern University School of Law. Mr. Awlaki was a self-described leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and had a hand in orchestrating attacks against the United States, including the attempted destruction of a U.S. passenger plane by “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Mr. Awlaki was killed by a September drone strike believed to have been authorized by the president.

Mr. Holder said Monday that the administration weighs several factors before using lethal force against a U.S. citizen on foreign soil who has been pegged as a leader with al-Qaeda or an associated group. Mr. Holder argued that a targeted strike would be lawful only if the administration concluded that the “individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” and that “capture is not feasible.” An “imminent threat,” Mr. Holder explained, need not require the identification of a “precise time, place, and manner” of such an attack.

The attorney general also rebuffed the notion that a court must authorize such a military attack. “The unfortunate reality is that our nation will likely continue to face terrorist threats that — at times — originate with our own citizens,” Mr. Holder said. “We must take steps to stop them — in full accordance with the Constitution. In this hour of danger, we simply cannot afford to wait until deadly plans are carried out — and we will not.”

We agree with the thrust of Mr. Holder’s statements. But these are assertions based on the administration’s interpretation of the law, not an explication of which laws it relies on in justifying these strikes.

The country learned all too well during the Bush administration’s indefensible use of torture how existing legal authorities can be twisted. Soon after President Obama took office, Mr. Holder made public many of the Bush-era “torture” memos crafted by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel; he should now perform a similar public service by releasing — in redacted form, if necessary — the department memos that deal with drone strikes.