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-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate. 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 Awlaki and to release at least portions of a 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 for targeted killings. And it followed a prolonged internal debate about how 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.”
He said the president is not required by the Constitution to delay action until some “theoretical end stage of planning — when the precise time, place and manner of an attack become clear.”
The attorney general’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 preemption,” said John B. Bellinger, who served as a legal adviser to the State Department in the George W. Bush administration.
Bellinger said he agreed with the attorney general’s statement of U.S. law for targeting an American, although he noted that the speech was less clear about how targeted killings comply with international legal rules.
There are no known U.S. citizens on target lists maintained by the CIA or the military’s Joint Special Operations Command.
Holder emphasized Monday that he would discuss the issue only in the abstract and would not “discuss or confirm any particular program or operation.”