March 5th, 2012
05:30 PM ET

Holder: Not 'assassination' to target Americans in terror hunt

By Terry Frieden

Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday defended the targeted killing of U.S. citizens abroad who are suspected of plotting to kill Americans, rejecting critics' arguments that those strikes amount to assassinations.

While not referring directly to the government's drone attack on U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last year, Holder was unflinching in providing publicly for the first time the Justice Department's legal justification for using lethal force, saying attacks like the strike that killed al-Awlaki fell within "our laws and values."

RECOMMENDED on GPS blog: Evaluating Holder's speech on targeted killings

"Let me be clear: An operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated force, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful," he said.

Security Clearance: Covering terrorism, military, intelligence and diplomacy

The attorney general's speech to an audience at the Northwestern University Law School in Chicago marked his most expansive comments on the subject of deadly attacks against Americans since his lawyers in the Office of Legal Counsel wrote a still-secret opinion declaring such lethal attacks are legal and justifiable.

But he said three conditions must exist. The U.S. government must have determined that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against America; capture of the suspect is not feasible; and the operation would be conducted within the principles of the law of war.

Holder argued that al Qaeda has the ability to spring surprise attacks and is considered to be continuously planning against to attack on America. Therefore, the law allows for striking even before the "precise time, place, and manner of an attack becomes clear."

"Such a requirement would create an unacceptably high risk that our efforts would fail, and that Americans would be killed," he said.

Holder rejected the charge that the deadly operations violate the government's ban on assassinations and dismissed the notion the strikes fit the definition of assassination at all.

"Some have called such operations 'assassinations.' They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced," he said. "Assassination are unlawful killings," while killings under the conditions he outlined would be lawful.

Holder also took issue with those who have charged the government agencies must get permission from a federal court before taking action against an al Qaeda target.

"This is simply not accurate," Holder said. "Due process and judicial process are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process."

Al-Awlaki and another American, Samir Khan, were killed in September when a drone operated jointly by the CIA and a military unit destroyed a vehicle in which the men were riding in Yemen. Al-Awlaki, who U.S. intelligence officials have said was an operational planner for attacks, was the target of that strike.

Khan was traveling with al-Awlaki and was not specifically targeted.

Court documents show that Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab, the so-called "Underwear Bomber," told U.S. authorities that al-Awlaki had played a major role in the plot to blow up a commercial airliner en route to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. President Obama later said al-Awlaki had "directed the failed attempt."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the administration's drone program on behalf of al-Awlaki's father, said the speech was "a gesture towards additional transparency," but continued to object to the legal rationale.

"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," Hina Shamsi, the director of ACLU's National Security Project, said in an e-mailed statement. "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."

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said Holder's speech left questions unanswered.

“For example, the government should explain exactly how much evidence the President needs in order to decide that a particular American is part of a terrorist group," Wyden said in a statement released on Monday.  "It is also unclear to me whether individual Americans must be given the opportunity to surrender before lethal force is used against them.  And I’m particularly concerned that the geographic boundaries of this authority have not been clearly laid out.  Based on what I’ve heard so far, I can’t tell whether or not the Justice Department’s legal arguments would allow the President to order intelligence agencies to kill an American inside the United States."

Holder also used the speech to defend the use of civilian courts to try terrorists, noting numerous successful prosecutions.

"The calls that I've heard to ban the use of civilian courts in prosecutions of terrorism-related activity are so baffling, and ultimately are so dangerous. These calls ignore reality," Holder said. "If heeded, they would significantly weaken - in fact, they would cripple - our ability to incapacitate and punish those who attempt do us harm."

And Holder indicated more targeted killings are possible.

"When such individuals take up arms against this country, and join al Qaeda in plotting attacks designed to kill their fellow Americans, there may be only one realistic and appropriate response," 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."

He concluded, "This is an indicator of our times, not a departure from our laws and values."

Follow Security Clearance on Twitter

Filed under: Al Qaeda • Anwar al-Awlaki • AQAP • drones • Intelligence • Justice Department • Living With Terror • Terrorism • Yemen
soundoff (1,671 Responses)
  1. semi truck repair shop

    May 6, 2021 at 4:06 am | Reply
  2. Eye Care Near Me

    You ought to be a part of a contest for one of the greatest websites on the internet. I will recommend this web site!

    May 6, 2021 at 12:11 am | Reply
  3. rapid testing near me

    May 5, 2021 at 7:37 pm | Reply
  4. gmc savana 2500 cargo van

    I like it when individuals come together and share thoughts. Great site, stick with it!

    May 5, 2021 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  5. marketing memberships

    There is definately a great deal to learn about this issue. I like all the points you have made.

    May 5, 2021 at 1:36 pm | Reply
  6. RV Repair Near Me

    May 5, 2021 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  7. RV Remodel Near Me

    Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular post! It's the little changes that will make the most significant changes. Thanks for sharing!

    May 5, 2021 at 9:33 am | Reply
  8. mercedes sprinter crew van

    Spot on with this write-up, I actually think this amazing site needs far more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read through more, thanks for the info!

    May 5, 2021 at 8:18 am | Reply
  9. RV Storage Los Angeles

    Greetings! Very useful advice within this post! It is the little changes which will make the largest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!

    May 5, 2021 at 2:51 am | Reply
  10. service truck body near me

    Saved as a favorite, I love your site!

    May 4, 2021 at 9:19 pm | Reply
  11. food truck maintenance near me

    This website truly has all the information I needed concerning this subject and didn’t know who to ask.

    May 4, 2021 at 8:31 pm | Reply
  12. guidance training

    Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thanks, However I am encountering problems with your RSS. I don’t understand why I can't join it. Is there anybody else having similar RSS problems? Anybody who knows the answer can you kindly respond? Thanks!!

    May 4, 2021 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  13. personal coach

    Everything is very open with a precise description of the issues. It was truly informative. Your website is very helpful. Many thanks for sharing!

    May 4, 2021 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  14. Eye Specialist Near Me


    May 4, 2021 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  15. Wrap Around Prescription Sunglasses

    I'm pretty pleased to uncover this website. I wanted to thank you for ones time for this particularly wonderful read!! I definitely enjoyed every part of it and I have you saved to fav to look at new things in your website.

    May 4, 2021 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  16. cheap viagra from canada

    viagra without a doctor prescription canada generic viagra order canada

    May 2, 2021 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  17. canadian pills pharmacy

    canadian pills pharmacy canadian generic pills

    May 2, 2021 at 11:01 am | Reply
  18. world market darknet

    777930 904987I like this weblog its a master piece! Glad I discovered this on google. 992241

    May 2, 2021 at 7:49 am | Reply
  19. priligy

    buy avanafil canada priligy tablets

    May 1, 2021 at 3:16 am | Reply
  20. aralen phosphate chloroquine phosphate

    chloroquine malaria chloroquine cvs

    April 30, 2021 at 6:24 pm | Reply
  21. mobile roulette free

    I know this web page presents quality depending content and additional information, is there
    any other website which gives these things in quality?

    April 30, 2021 at 5:09 am | Reply
  22. 대밤

    131419 638340What host are you the use of? Can I get affiliate link to your host? I desire web site loaded up as quickly as yours lol 133703

    April 28, 2021 at 5:23 am | Reply
  23. chloroquine generic

    malaria skin rash chroloquine

    April 28, 2021 at 3:06 am | Reply
  24. home for sale hauser idaho

    This site was... how do I say it? Relevant!! Finally I've found something that helped me. Thank you!

    April 27, 2021 at 9:25 pm | Reply
  25. Dark0de Market Link

    863798 698564I like this weblog so much, saved to fav. 643388

    April 27, 2021 at 6:31 pm | Reply
  26. ivermectin tablets

    ivermectin dosing ivermectina

    April 27, 2021 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  27. viagra online

    best erectile dysfunction natural remedies generic viagra online

    April 27, 2021 at 11:40 am | Reply
  28. RV Interior Designer Riverside

    Spot on with this write-up, I honestly believe this web site needs much more attention. I’ll probably be back again to see more, thanks for the info!

    April 24, 2021 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  29. awnings orange county

    I needed to thank you for this excellent read!! I certainly enjoyed every little bit of it. I have you book marked to look at new things you post…

    April 24, 2021 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  30. join now

    Even if there can only be a few IP per day, we
    could also dig out the earnings method. Offsite SEO techniques become the key to
    scoring loaded with a google domination.

    April 24, 2021 at 9:42 am | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Leave a Reply to Bob Brown


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.