Department of Justice Outlines When Drones Can Be Used Against U.S. Citizens

The 16-page memo, which was leaked to NBC News, states that no clear evidence of an "imminent" threat is needed to sanction a drone strike, but rather it comes down to the say-so of an "informed, high-level" U.S. government official.

A leaked Department of Justice memo holds the key to the Obama administration's policy on drone strikes on U.S. citizens, it seems. The draft white paper (.pdf file), which was leaked to NBC News, sanctions the killing of Americans without intelligence, provided that the order is given by a high-ranking government official with knowledge, albeit one who has applied a three-part test to the target.

  • Is the suspect presenting an "imminent" threat of violent attack against the U.S.?
  • Is capture of the suspect "infeasible?" (See also, would an attempted capture pose an "undue risk" to U.S. personnel?)
  • Can the strike be conducted according to "the law of war principles?"
Three U.S. citizens were killed by drone strikes in Yemen in September and October 2011. Relatives of the three, Anwar al-Awlaki, Samir Khan and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, are suing Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, William McRaven, and Joseph Votel for wrongful death.

Broadly speaking, the policy is this: No black-and-white intelligence is needed, just someone high enough up the food chain who has enough knowledge to sanction it. So far, so woolly. The memo, "Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa-ida or An Associated Force," was provided to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees in June of last year, a month before the wrongful-death lawsuit was filed. Do you think the appearance of this memo was an unplanned leak or is this a DoJ-sanctioned leak that attempts to justify the rationale of the policy?

[Image by Flickr user Offical U.S. Navy Imagery]

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