A memo that was leaked from the U.S. Department of Justice shows the legal basis for using drone strikes to kill American citizens if they are leaders of al-Qaeda or affiliated groups.
The strikes can be ordered even if there is no intelligence that the Americans associated with the terrorist network are actively plotting to attack the U.S., said the memo, which was obtained by NBC News on Tuesday.
“Targeting a member of an enemy force who poses an imminent threat of violent attack to the United States is not unlawful,” it reads. “It is a lawful act of self-defense,” giving reason for lethal force against an individual if they cannot be captured.
NBC reports that the memo went one step beyond what Attorney General Eric Holder detailed in a speech about drone strikes last year, saying that if the individual’s capture poses an “undue risk” for U.S. personnel, then officials could order a drone strike. It also said that the killing must be carried out under the law of war principles.
“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the leaked memo said.
The memo says that such individuals pose an “extraordinary” threat to the U.S. in terms of the potential loss of life if they are successful in their operations, but notes that “this conclusion is reached with recognition of the extraordinary seriousness of a lethal operation by the United States against a U.S. citizen.”
Under President Barack Obama, there has been a sharp increase in drone strikes—particularly in Pakistan.
The memo was given to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees last summer, reported NBC.
It also elaborates on the use of drones outside recognized war zones. The document states that sovereignty is not violated if a host nation gives consent or if that nation is unwilling or unable to deal with the threat posed by members of the terrorist network.
Jameel Jaffer with the American Civil Liberties Union described the memo as a “chilling” document.
“The white paper purports to recognize some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are so vague and elastic that they will be easily manipulated,” he said in a statement.
He added: “It takes as a given that the target of the strike will be a ‘senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force of al-Qaeda,’ and it reasons from that premise that judicial process is unnecessary. This is a little bit like assuming that the defendant is guilty and then asking whether it’s useful to have a trial.”
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