A confidential Department of Justice memo obtained by NBC News sets out a disturbing picture of the Obama administration's legal rationale for killing, without a trial, American citizens and others in defense of the United States against terrorists.
Media, civil liberties and other organizations have sought for some time the argument under which President Barack Obama and other U.S. officials justified the 2011 killing in Yemen of three American citizens -- Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahmen al-Awlaki and Samir Khan -- with missiles fired from drones, unmanned aerial vehicles. The unsigned and undated document setting out the rationale had been given last year to members of two Senate committees on a confidential basis, but it was made public only Monday by NBC.
What is in the document is very disturbing, considering the due process of law guaranteed to every citizen by the Constitution. The Justice Department white paper says that a U.S. citizen who could not be captured may be killed under the law if "an informed, high-level official" of the government decided that the target was an al-Qaida figure who could be the source of "an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States."
Who is an "informed, high-level official" in the government? What is an "imminent threat of violent attack"? The document says that such a death sentence can be carried out even if no intelligence exists indicating an active plot against the United States.
Until now, the public's understanding of who ruled on the CIA's drone kill list was President Obama. In principle the president is the only one who can authorize assassinations, but is an "informed, high-level official" also the CIA director, the post formerly held by retired Gen. David Petraeus and to which John O. Brennan has been nominated? Or does this category of decision-maker include other, lower-ranking government employees?
The American Civil Liberties Union called the rationale "a stunning overreach of executive authority." One need not be an attorney, however, to believe that this practice is sharply out of line with the Constitution and, if left in place, will leave Mr. Obama and other senior officials open to charges in U.S. courts of murder or in international tribunals of war crimes.
Protecting the security of the United States is important, but what is taking place in the name of security is a violation of the very rights that the government should be safeguarding.