Citizen execution: The White House must explain its drone attacks

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The government's decision to kill three American citizens with drone missiles, disregarding their rights to due process, was challenged last week in lawsuits filed in federal court against top military and natonal security officials. Maybe now the Obama administration will explain how it can engage in such controversial attacks.

Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric born in New Mexico; his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, born in Colorado; and Samir Khan, a naturalized American citizen who lived in Queens, Long Island and North Carolina, were killed last fall by unmanned drone strikes in Yemen. The wrongful-death suits have been brought by the Awlakis' father and grandfather and Mr. Khan's mother.

The lawsuits name Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, CIA Director David H. Petraeus and Joint Special Operations Command officers Adm. William H. McRaven and Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Votel. President Barack Obama, who reportedly approves all drone targeting, cannot be sued for the deaths since he has "absolute immunity" from suits stemming from official actions. The suits are backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Many Americans have reservations about anyone in the U.S. government ordering the killing of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, as it has done and continues to do, by unmanned drone aircraft. It is an impersonal means of waging war, and one highly susceptible to causing collateral damage, often through the inadvertent killing of innocent people in the vicinity of a targeted person.

The long-distance killing is more problematic when the victims are U.S. citizens. Then the question of the Americans' constitutional right to due process of law, including no execution without a trial, defense, conviction and sentencing, enters in. Administration officials have defended the targeting of U.S. citizens who join terrorist groups and engage in other activities.

It is useful that the suits have been brought and that Mr. Obama's administration now will be forced to provide a legal justification for its claimed right to execute U.S. citizens without due process of law. Such an explanation should be informative to all Americans.

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