The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is strongly objecting to a speech given Monday by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder at Northwestern University’s law school, during which he offered a public acknowledgement that the Obama Administration believes it has the right to kill U.S. citizens anywhere in the world without judicial review.
Speaking to Raw Story on Monday night, Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s national Security Project, said that Holder’s explanation “raises profound legal and moral questions,” and poses a grave threat to American liberties should a future president decide to seize upon the precedent for more nefarious purposes.
So far, only three American citizens have been killed by targeted drone strikes overseas, and in each instance the Administration insisted they were participating in terrorist activities and therefore were enemy combatants. Speaking to law students Monday night, Holder insisted that Congress gave the executive branch blanket authority to safeguard national security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks — meaning they have the right to do as they see fit, with nobody to second guess them.
“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,” Shamsi said. “Few things are as dangerous to American liberty as the proposition that the government should be able to kill citizens anywhere in the world on the basis of legal standards and evidence that are never submitted to a court, either before or after the fact.”
She added: “Anyone willing to trust President Obama with the power to secretly declare an American citizen an enemy of the state and order his extrajudicial killing should ask whether they would be willing to trust the next president with that dangerous power.”
The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Administration last month, demanding they turn over any memos illustrating the legal rationale for extra-judicial killings of American citizens. The Administration, however, has refused to confirm or deny that these memos exist, telling a court that discussing the program would harm national security.
They were especially frustrated when Defense Department counsel Jeh Johnson told Yale Law School last month that the president’s authority to kill enemy combatants is “without a geographic limitation” and that “U.S. citizens do not enjoy immunity” from extra-judicial killings. Comparing these documents to the Bush torture memos, the civil liberties group wondered why the Administration would not even acknowledge whether they even exist, saying that the government must show its hand in the matter.
“To be clear, our complaint is not that the government is disclosing information to the press. Indeed, we wish it would disclose more,” the ACLU explained in February. “Our complaint is simply that the government should not be permitted to declare in court that discussing a program would jeopardize national security when it has disclosed the same program to the public.”
Speaking Monday, Holder repeated Johnson’s rationale, saying that the Administration’s monopoly on lethal violence is not bound to theaters of war.
“Some have called such operations ‘assassinations,’” Holder said. “They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced. 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.”
And therein lies the problem, Shamsi said.
“The government has told the courts that its targeted killing program is so secret that even its existence can’t be acknowledged, but that proposition can no longer be taken seriously,” she concluded. “If the attorney general can discuss the targeted killing program at a law school, then the Administration can surely release the legal memos it uses to justify its claimed killing authority, and also defend its legal justifications in court.”
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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