Kill rationale: The Justice Department needs to explain

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A federal appeals court decision Monday may shed light on the rationale of the Obama administration in ordering drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen that killed four U.S. citizens without due process of law.

The federal government acknowledged last May that the CIA and the Defense Department carried out the 2011 attacks using unmanned aerial vehicles. At least one of the victims, Anwar al-Awlaki, was a senior al-Qaida leader. The other three, Samir Khan, Jude Kenan Mohammad and Abdul Rahman al-Awlaki (al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son), appear to have been unintended victims.

President Barack Obama has indicated that he personally is involved in the process by which the targets of drone attacks are chosen. Critics charge that condemning and executing U.S. citizens without benefit of trial is equivalent to murder or assassination.

The American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times used the Freedom of Information Act to try to obtain the government’s legal rationale for authorizing the killings, which is apparently laid out in a memorandum prepared by the White House Office of Legal Counsel. The government resisted providing the information but, on Monday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the government had to make available a redacted version of the memo.

The Justice Department has the option to appeal the court’s decision, but what it should do is make public as much of the memorandum as it can without compromising classified information.

This is a grave matter. The bulk of the argumentation — the justification for killing U.S. citizens without due process of law — needs to see the light of day. Americans understand and some agree that killings need to be done, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, in the war against those who would do lethal harm to the United States.

But killing American citizens is and will continue to be a unique need, if there is one, and the argument for it must be made clearly and publicly, as the court has ruled.

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