February 5, 2013
DOJ White Paper Says Why Drone Attacks on Americans Are Constitutional
A Department of Justice white paper leaked to NBC gives the more detailed version of the administration's legal case for drone attacks against overseas Americans associated with al-Qa'ida. (Note that the white paper is unsigned and undated; it is not an OLC memo. It is titled simply "Department of Justice White Paper.") Michael Isikoff wrote on the white paper here. The leak is significant, because the administration has steadfastly refused to release a formal legal justification for the program. Just last month, the administration successfully defended against a FOIA claim in federal court seeking legal justification for the program.)
According to the white paper, the president has constitutional authority to order drone attacks and is not prohibited by due process. The paper says that the president has authority to respond to order strikes as part of his authority to defend the country against the imminent threat posed by al Qa'ida and associated forces, including U.S. citizens associated with al Qa'ida, under "the inherent right of the United States to national self defense under international law, Congress's authorization of the use of all necessary and appropriate military force against this enemy, and the existence of an armed conflict with al-Qa'ida under international law."
According to the paper, due process does not prohibit this:
Were the target of a lethal operation a U.S. citizen who may have rights under the Due Process Clasue and the Fourth Amendment, that individual's citizenship would not immunize him from a lethal operation. Under the traditional due process balancing analysis of Mathews v. Eldridge, we recognize that there is no private interest more weighty than a person's interest in his life. But that interest must be balanced against the United States' interest in forestalling the threat of violence and death to other Americans that arise from an individual who is a senior operational leader of al-Q'aida or an associated of al-Q'aida and who is engaged in plotting against the United States.
Instead, the white paper sets out a three-part test for targeted killing of a U.S. citizen who is outside the United States and who is "an operational leader continually planning attacks against U.S. persons and interests":
(1) where an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States;
(2) where a capture operation would be infeasible--and where those conducting the operation continue to monitor whether capture becomes infeasible; and
(3) where such an operation would be conducted consistent with applicable law of war principles.
The paper says that "[i]n these circumstances, the 'realities' of the conflict and the weight of the government's interest in protecting its citizens from an imminent atack are such that the Constitution would not require the government to provide further process to such a U.S. citizen before using lethal force."
The paper, however, goes on to define "imminent" quite broadly (and surprisingly): "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 paper also goes on at length as to why this isn't unlawful murder.
It mentions as part of the justification that "under the circumstances described in this paper, there exists no appropriate judicial forum to evaluate these constitutional considerations."
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