“While the speech is a gesture towards additional transparency, it is ultimately a defense of the government’s chillingly broad claimed authority to conduct targeted killings of civilians, including American citizens, far from any battlefield without judicial review or public scrutiny,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project.
Holder argued that a careful and thorough executive branch review of the facts in a case amounts to “due process” and that the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against depriving a citizen of his or her life without due process of law does not mandate a “judicial process.”
“Where national security operations are at stake, due process takes into account the realities of combat,” Holder said. “Some have argued that the president is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qaeda or associated forces. This is simply not accurate.”
Holder said that the question of “whether the capture of a U.S.-citizen terrorist is feasible is a fact-specific, and potentially time-sensitive, question.”
“Given the nature of how terrorists act and where they tend to hide,” he continued, “it may not always be feasible to capture a United States-citizen terrorist who presents an imminent threat of violent attack. In that case, our government has the clear authority to defend the United States with lethal force.”
Holder also noted that in using lethal force, the United States must make sure that it is acting within the laws of war by ensuring that any target is participating in hostilities and that collateral damage is not excessive. And he noted that law-of-war principles “do not forbid the use of stealth or technologically advanced weapons” — an apparent reference to drones.
More broadly, Holder argued that the targeting of specific senior belligerents in wartime in not unusual, and noted the 1943 U.S. tracking and shooting down of the plane carrying Japanese Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
He said that “because the United States is in an armed conflict, we are authorized to take action against enemy belligerents under international law . . . and our legal authority is not limited to the battlefields of Afghanistan.”
Holder said he rejected any attempt to label such operations “assassinations.”
“They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced,” he said. “Assassinations are unlawful killings. Here, for the reasons I have given, the U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self-defense against a leader of al-Qaeda or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful — and therefore would not violate the executive order banning assassination or criminal statutes.”
Holder said “it is preferable to capture suspected terrorists where feasible — among other reasons, so that we can gather valuable intelligence from them — but we must also recognize that there are instances where our government has the clear authority — and, I would argue, the responsibility — to defend the United States through the appropriate and lawful use of lethal force.”