UPDATE: US Attorney General Eric Holder today defended the government's targeted assassination program as legal.
Holder said in a speech today:
"Given the nature of how terrorists act and where they tend to hide, 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."
TPM adds that Holder stated the targets were given "due process:"
The Obama administration believes that executive branch reviews of evidence against suspected al-Qaeda leaders before they are targeted for killing meet the constitution’s “due process” requirement and that American citizenship alone doesn’t protect individuals from being killed, Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech Monday.
“Due process and judicial process are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security,” Holder said. “The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.”
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, commented on the speech:
“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. 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. 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.”
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EARLIER: The Obama administration will later today explain its legal justification for its 'targeted assassination' program, which allows the government to kill U.S. citizens anywhere in the world, the Associated Press is reporting.
The Associated Press reports that Attorney General Eric Holder will explain the legal backing for the program this afternoon at Northwestern University.
One official familiar with the speech said it was doubtful Holder would mention by name Anwar al-Awlaki, who was targeted in a September drone attack. Another American who was active in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Samir Khan, was not the target of the strike but was with al-Awlaki and killed at the same time. [...]
Another official familiar with the speech confirmed the attorney general will discuss the legal framework on the use of lethal force. The official, who asked not to be identified because the speech is still under wraps, said the targeted-killing issue is just one aspect of a broad-ranging look at national security issues from a legal perspective.
Defense department lawyer Jeh Johnson said last month:
"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."
On February 1 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Depart of Justice to demand that the US government release information about the government’s targeted killing program.
Explaining its lawsuit, the ACLU wrote:
Our government’s deliberate and premeditated killing of American terrorism suspects raises profound questions that ought to be the subject of public debate. Unfortunately the Obama administration has released very little information about the practice — its official position is that the targeted killing program is a state secret — and some of the information it has released has been misleading. [...]
Some officials, including President Obama, have spoken on the record about the program. They have publicly claimed responsibility for killing al-Awlaki, and they have more generally defended the government’s right to kill citizens after a secret non-judicial process. Just last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta acknowledged on 60 Minutes that the U.S. can and does carry out targeted killings of U.S. citizens subject to the recommendations of the CIA Director and the Secretary of Defense and pursuant to the President’s authorization. And this week, President Obama publicly defended the CIA targeted killing program in a live internet interview [starts at minute 26:30].
Glenn Greenwald wrote after the ACLU lawsuit was filed:
From a certain perspective, there’s really only one point worth making about all of this: if you think about it, it is warped beyond belief that the ACLU has to sue the U.S. Government in order to force it to disclose its claimed legal and factual bases for assassinating U.S. citizens without charges, trial or due process of any kind. It’s extraordinary enough that the Obama administration is secretly targeting citizens for execution-by-CIA; that they refuse even to account for what they are doing — even to the point of refusing to disclose their legal reasoning as to why they think the President possesses this power — is just mind-boggling. Truly: what more tyrannical power is there than for a government to target its own citizens for death — in total secrecy and with no checks — and then insist on the right to do so without even having to explain its legal and factual rationale for what it is doing? Could you even imagine what the U.S. Government and its media supporters would be saying about any other non-client-state country that asserted and exercised this power?