Obama admin defends killing American terrorists
Anwar al-Awlaki
February 23rd, 2012
05:18 PM ET

Obama admin defends killing American terrorists

By Pam Benson

The targeted killing of those suspected of engaging in terrorist activities against the United States, including American citizens, is justified and legal, according to the Defense Department's chief lawyer.

Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson is the first government lawyer to officially weigh in on the legal justification for killing a U.S. citizen since American born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a CIA missile fired from an unmanned aerial vehicle last September.

In comments Wednesday night during a speech at Yale University, Johnson made no mention by name of al-Awlaki or the classified CIA drone program.

"Belligerents who also happen to be U.S. citizens do not enjoy immunity where non-citizen belligerents are valid military objectives," Johnson said.

He cited a 2004 Supreme Court decision as the justification for his comment.

"Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, stated that "[a} citizen, no less than an alien, can be 'part of or supporting forces hostile to the United States or coalition partners' and 'engaged in an armed conflict against the United States.'"

Johnson's remarks mostly mirrored what State Department counsel Harold Koh said in a speech two years ago to the American Society of International Law.

"In an armed conflict, lethal force against known, individual members of the enemy is a long-standing and long-legal practice," Johnson said. What has changed is the technology used to attack suspected terrorists.

Whereas Koh specifically referred to lethal attacks by unmanned aerial vehicles as a legal method of targeting terrorists, Johnson sidestepped any direct mention of the use of armed drones.

Instead, he referred to advanced technology where "we are able to target military objectives with much more precision, to the point where we can identify, target and strike a single military objective from great distances."

Johnson reiterated Koh's assessment that targeted killing is not assassination.

"Under well-settled legal principles, lethal force against a valid military objective, in an armed conflict, is consistent with the law of war and does not, by definition, constitute an "assassination," said Johnson.

Until recently, no one in the Obama administration would talk publicly about the CIA's secret drone program. President Barack Obama broke the silence last month when he defended the program during a question and answer session on the Internet.

Al-Awlaki is not the only American who has been killed by a drone strike since the United States began its offensive against al Qaeda following the 9/11 terrorism attacks in 2001.

Ahmed Hijazi, a Lackawanna, New York native, died in 2002 when a hellfire missile destroyed a car he was traveling in with five other people in Yemen. The intended target was Abu Ali Harithi, an associate of Osama bin Laden, who allegedly was involved in the attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 U.S. sailors. At the time, U.S. officials referred to Hijazi as collateral damage.

American Samir Khan was with al-Awlaki when the CIA destroyed their vehicle in Yemen. Khan was the editor of the al Qaeda English language magazine, "Inspire."

Al-Awlaki's son was among nine people killed by a drone attack in Yemen two weeks after his father died. U.S .officials said the teenager was not the intended target, and was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Human Rights First was not satisfied with Johnson's defense of targeted killing.

In a written statement, Raha Wala, the group's advocacy counsel, said, "The American people deserve to know who the government believes it can kill in our names. General Counsel Johnson's speech did little to help shed light on the government's approach to targeted killing. It is this unexplained secrecy that has caused so many to question this program."

A number of lawmakers and civil liberties groups have called on the administration to release more information about the legal justification for targeting Americans.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, believes al-Awlaki was "a lawful target" but called on the administration to provide details about its legal rationale in order "to maintain public support of secret operations."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to give a speech on March 5 in Chicago where he is expected to discuss the issue of trageting Americans.

Johnson also said the legal authority for the military's counterterrorism efforts was the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) bill passed by Congress one week after the 9/11 attacks. But he added, AUMF was not open-ended. "It does not authorize military force against anyone the executive labels a 'terrorist'", Johnson said.

"Rather, it encompasses only those groups or people with a link to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 or associated forces."

He went on to define an associated force as a group that is aligned with al Qaeda and has "entered the fight against the United States or its coalition partners."

Human Rights First welcomed Johnson's comments that the war is not open-ended, but said the administration needed to make the end point clearer. Raha Wala said, "suggesting the war extends outside Afghanistan to vaguely define associated forces is much too amorphous.

"With the end of the war in Iraq, the death of bin Laden and the decimation of al Qaeda, the end of combat operations in in Afghanistan should mark the clear end of war."

Wala said it is time for law enforcement and intelligence officers to take over response to the terrorism threat.

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Filed under: 9/11 • Al Qaeda • Anwar al-Awlaki • AQAP • CIA • drones • Terrorism • Yemen
soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. Joe citizen abroad

    Hey. Al qaeda is at war with us. We are at war with them. That makes anyone who publicly identifies themselves as Al qaeda a fair target. And particularly someone who is clearly a principle operative of that organization. You don't stop on a battlefield to debate whether the guy wearing the enemy uniform and shooting at you is a threat. Common sense tells you that he is. Is it "assassination" to return fire and kill that individual? No. It's war. There is no "due process" or "judicial review." The definition of war is that those civilized tools are no longer the first course of action, because the situation has escalated beyond the reach of such measures. Is there anyone left at this point who thinks Al qaeda is not at war and does not take every opportunity they can to harm the US?

    March 6, 2012 at 8:45 am | Reply
  2. Nevena

    Since Wordsmith was bugging me to fomrat and you've done one here, drj, I'll just repost the point/counterpoint here and let it go. BTW, the Senate passed one of their versions of the same bill Dec 1st, 93 to 7. Three Dems (Harkin and OR's two Wyden and Merkeley), three GOP (Rand Paul, Lee and Coburn) and one Indy (Socialist Bernie Sanders, of course) opposed.~~~On the heels of this story of infiltration, that it seems timely to point out the chicken little hyperbole now being spread by the anti-war (like , in tandem with on the National Defense Authorization Act. (Mata Musing, judging by drj's linked story, you can add leftist Salon to that as well )The Senate and House versions of these bills are primarily to provide funding tables for military construction, defense and national security authorizations. But what the anti-war and leftists are objecting to are what they call increased war powers to the CiC.The House bill, was introduced in April, and passed the House May 26th with overwhelming bipartisan support (322 Ayes, 96 Nays, 13 Present/Not Voting). No surprise that GOP primary candidate, saying that:The current proposal would allow a President to pursue war any time, any place, for any reason, without Congressional approval. Many believe this would even permit military activity against American suspects here at home. The proposed authority does not reference the 9/11 attacks. It would be expanded to include the Taliban and associated forces—a dangerously vague and expansive definition of our potential enemies.Now the same bunch is hot on the trail to cast the presentation of in the same light, as exhibited by the Sky Valley Chronicle's (Monroe, WA) screaming headline, The passed House bill teamed up with both a GOP and Dem sponsor a rare moment of Congressional compromise and cooperation (as the House vote proves). The original Senate version, S. 981, was also a bipartisan construction but the one that ultimately passed as a Carl Levin sponsored version with no co-sponsors.And what are their knickers all in a twist about? For Paul and the ACLU, it was Section 530 and 1034, amending the AUMF (which Ron Paul wants repealed pfttt).SEC. 530. PROTECTED COMMUNICATIONS BY MEMBERS OF THE ARMED FORCES AND PROHIBITION OF RETALIATORY PERSONNEL ACTIONS.Section 1034(c)(2) of title 10, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following new subparagraph:‘(C) Ideologically based threats or actions of another member that the member providing the infomration reasonably believes could be counterproductive or detrimental to United States interests or security.’. snip .SEC. 1034. AFFIRMATION OF ARMED CONFLICT WITH AL-QAEDA, THE TALIBAN, AND ASSOCIATED FORCES.Congress affirms that (1) the United States is engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces and that those entities continue to pose a threat to the United States and its citizens, both domestically and abroad;(2) the President has the authority to use all necessary and appropriate force during the current armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note);(3) the current armed conflict includes nations, organization, and persons who (A) are part of, or are substantially supporting, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners; or(B) have engaged in hostilities or have directly supported hostilities in aid of a nation, organization, or person described in subparagraph (A); and(4) the President’s authority pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note) includes the authority to detain belligerents, including persons described in paragraph (3), until the termination of hostilities.In other words, they are correcting a beef I have had since the onset that of describing the enemy that is the global Islamic jihad networks as only AQ. They now are including all who engage in hostilities against the US that share the AQ ideology.This, of course, has the same bunch who were upset about the killing of pseudo American al Awlaki, in an uproar, saying Congress will give President Obama and every future president the power to order the military to pick up and imprison without charge or trial American civilians anywhere in the world. I guess the bill was large enough with other matters that they didn't want to read Subtitle D Military Justice and Legal Matters, which lays out the specifics of judicial review. So it seems the hyperbole is somewhat overblown, and merely codifies what the US has been doing from the start detaining suspected terrorists and their associated links but still allows for military tribunals and judicial review.This becomes important because if the US finds the Lebanese mole in the CIA, I'm frankly not interested in hearing a bunch of hoo hah about the violation of his rights. First order of business is to get the suspects out of the infomration loop to prevent further intel leaks that endanger our troops and US citizens. And I'm quite sure that some ACLU or Lawyer's Guild type if they can find the time in between bailing out their infestant anarchists out of jail will step up to the plate to defend the suspected mole's rights in any situation.Reply

    March 2, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Reply
  3. JohnH

    Does this imperial pronouncement really surprise you?

    The US/UK pretty much developed a policy of "sexing up" the intelligence to fit the politics after 9/11. Up is down, right is wrong, black is white. Reality is anything they claim it to be,

    This is just a logical continuation down that very slippery slope to the cesspool of total tyranny.

    February 27, 2012 at 8:19 am | Reply
  4. Dixie Normus

    Dixie Normus

    Drew is right–I am watching CNN right now and they are saying that there is NO Economic recovery in sight–it is merely and Economy that is bouncing off the bottom. Wonder if Iran is planning their BS to drive price of oil up in order to further hurt the economies of Europe and USA?? How high will the price of OIL go to ?? Anyone??

    Montgomery is awesome!!

    February 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  5. James

    For once I agree–

    February 24, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Reply
  6. Tom Lowe

    When the shoe is on the other foot, no one will feel sorry for the butchers currently murdering under color of office, hollow black robe law, uniform, or anything else. The show will be on the other foot some day.

    February 24, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  7. rightospeak

    If that is the case he needs to investigate 9/11 fairy tale , because the world is writing books how it is impossible to bring buildings down as has been presented and the official story makes us look stupid. It takes a lot of imagination to even believe 9/11 story. Americans were killed. He needs to start with Gulliani, then Bush, Cheney- the whole 9/11 looks suspicious .

    February 24, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Reply
  8. F B M

    This guy reminds me of Harold Ramis from his SCTV days.

    February 24, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  9. mipolitic

    who is the obama gang defending this action before ?
    this is NO authority in the usa or other wise that is challengeing this.

    THIS IS SIMPLY OBAMA REMINDING US OF WHAT HE DID !
    the fact is obamas foreign policy is the weakest usa policy i have ever seen in my life.
    syria , iranian nukes , 19 detained americans in egypt , pakistan recieves millions upon millions of usa tax payer coin.

    February 24, 2012 at 8:46 am | Reply
    • Muslim

      Didn't you read the article slush for brains? There are several groups and individuals who question the policy. This president has handled international affairs and conflicts pretty well.

      February 24, 2012 at 11:12 am | Reply
  10. GreenCollarWorker

    How simple is it to revoke someone's citizenship if they are engaged in warfare against the US, I wonder?

    Regardless, the man was a terrorist and whether you call it a precision military strike or an assassination, he got what he deserved.

    February 24, 2012 at 12:45 am | Reply
    • Grayky

      I'm completely anti-terrorist, but I wonder why we couldn't charge this guy with war crimes, and bring him back for a trial in America? If he's guilty of something, and it looks like he was, it should be easily provable in a court of law. American citizens, even living abroad, should not be killed without trial.

      Just my two constitutional cents.

      February 24, 2012 at 3:00 am | Reply
  11. $commonsensenow

    Have the drones saved lives in the end? I don't like them. But I started wondering. When you declare war on someone, all bets are off and there is no such thing as a fair fight.There seems only to be public opion. No one wants to see people not get a trial.Do your soldiers get a trial before thier lives are taken in battle? So, I guess what would make people happy are drone abducting vechiles. Just go in , zap em, take them into custody and go to trial. Stop making enemies, then maybe you can start to solve these problems for the long term.

    February 23, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Reply
  12. Love Will Find A Way To Start WW3

    The U.S. had become a terrorist state.

    israel is a terrorist state.

    israel is the greatest threat to world peace.

    February 23, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
    • Dan

      says a terrorist

      February 24, 2012 at 1:09 am | Reply
      • Javier

        I was thhhhiiiisssss close to dnseing out the bloodhounds to find you Wordsmith... Glad to know the NYTimes Wahabbi lobby hasn't gotten to you.The graphic is great. We have to find a newspaper headline generator somewhere. I had a visit from moonbat Jen today who claimed that all this info had already been put out in the public domain.Yet, Keller claims that it was important to put this out for "public interest." Of course the real motive was to repackage this as another front page headline slam against Bush.This time it is backfiring.You know what would really be in the "public interest?" Find out who leaked this and PUBLISH THAT! Don't you think some enterprising newspaper reporters should be working on THAT story?

        March 4, 2012 at 11:53 pm |
  13. TheLastIndependent

    The guy shouldn't have been considered to be an US citizen. If you wage war against your own country, help in the killing of its citizens, then I'm one who isn't going to be shedding tears when you disappear in the cloud of dust and smoke. Drones: 1. Terrorist: 0. Game over

    February 23, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Reply
    • Grayky

      "The guy shouldn't have been considered to be an US citizen."
      Why, exactly? If the government can just start revoking citizenship status on a whim, what's to protect legitimate citizens from receiving this same sort of treatment if they're simply ACCUSED of a crime?

      I don't like terrorism, but what exactly is wrong with giving this guy a trial? If he's actually a terrorist, it'd probably be pretty damn easy to prove.

      Why do we no longer respect our constitution? American citizens have a right to due process, as outlined in our constitution.

      February 24, 2012 at 3:05 am | Reply
      • Voice of Reason

        Oh so since he happened to be born on US soil, that totally negates the fact that he convinced the Underwear bomber to try to kill 289 passengers on a flight on US soil. If Obama DIDN'T take him off the playing field, people would say he isn't protecting the public. He had contact with the fort hood shooter, i guess that just happens to be a coincidence to you too huh? It's not worth the threat to AMerican lives and assets to try to drag a known terrorist that was also knocked off at the same time as another well known terrorist newsletter owner Samir Khan, who sponsored such articles as "How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom". Keep dreaming in never neverland

        February 24, 2012 at 10:19 am |
      • Tom Lowe

        Voice Of Reason is just another helpless Koolaid drinker. He actually believes what the news tells him.

        February 24, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
  14. mipolitic

    WHAT A CRAP STORY , who is the one THAT THE USA GOV IS DEFENDING THEIR ACTIONS AGAINST ???

    FOLKS THERE IS NO AUTHORITY QUESTIONING ANYTHING , this is just another way the obama gang can claim that have been on the job of getting bad guys.

    ok , good you got the bag guy, WHAT ABOUT IRANIAN NUKES ????

    February 23, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Reply
    • Who Cares

      Pleas stop idf propagandist.

      Let's bomb israel – the dirty evil zionists are the real terrorists in the world. Everybody hates israel.

      why is miplititic so wanting to attack the Iranians? Because she is a zionist dog.

      Real American Patriots don't give one flip for the baby killing zionists or for the nutty Iranians.

      February 24, 2012 at 3:46 am | Reply
    • Walters

      Obama admin has not done anything to capture the bad guys. The ones that deserve credit are all the ones in the DOD, Troops, and all the personnel that are directly working to stop these guys. Obama admin has no idea who is killed and why until after the fact. It really annoys me to see them take credit when they have done nothing but sleep in their warm beds in their own houses and eat good meals 3 or more times a day while the troops and personnel working on stopping them live in terrible conditions, get crap food, and work long hours with 15 days of vacation in a year. Its bull crap, is admin and him have been and will always been useless.

      February 24, 2012 at 9:07 am | Reply
  15. rick

    a terrorist is a terrorist is a terrorist and can be targeted anywhere in the world, there are no safe havens. i have no problems with our approach to the removal of these cancers wherever they may be found. anyone riding in a car or sharing a house or hookah or for that matter hiding in a mosque with a terrorist needs to realize that they are at risk.

    February 23, 2012 at 6:16 pm | Reply
    • George

      Dude, that's racist.

      February 24, 2012 at 2:17 am | Reply
      • Bob Hill

        Dude, Rick is not a racist. Terrorists have no race. Terrorism is not a race, but a cancer upon the earth.

        February 24, 2012 at 10:28 am |
    • Zhao

      Idiot they don't know that they're in any of those places with a terrorist. Terrorists don't announce who they are you bag of turds.

      February 24, 2012 at 11:15 am | Reply
    • F B M

      Or driving a van in Oklahoma City.

      February 24, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
    • APatriot

      What a foolish and dangerous policy. What we all forget is that we used to be a nation of laws and that's why were were admired and respected by the world. Then we adopted bizarre, psychotic policies like illegal wars and pre-emptive actions like that of paranoid and warmongering states like our good friends the Zionazis and we started our own national death spiral. And like them, now we have no Constitution to guide us because we prefer to give up the legal protection of others for our personal convenience. And we ignore everything the Founding Fathers told us and blindly trust our corrupted politicians who have all been bought and sold with our own tax dollars.
      So you want to hand over your civil liberties and allow your nation to fight illegal and unjust wars as you cheer the TV with a beer in your hand?
      What's good for the goose is good for the gander...What comes around goes around....Karma and Kismet baby.

      February 26, 2012 at 9:33 am | Reply
  16. American Patriot

    Right On!

    I agree with you jayman!

    February 26, 2012 at 11:48 am | Reply

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