Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)Since 9/11 the War on Terror has been a pressing issue within the federal government. And of one of the touchiest issues that has arisen during that time is determining when the federal government has the power to target and kill American citizens suspected of terrorism?

Tuesday Attorney General Eric Holder provided the most clarity thus far on the legal principles behind the U.S. drone campaign and the U.S. government's legal authority to target and kill U.S. citizens such as Anwar al-Awlaki, a suspected high-profile al Qaeda recruiter, according to an ABC News article.

"Let me be clear: An operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful at least in the following circumstances:

First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States;

Second, capture is not feasible;

And third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles," said Holder during his speech at Northwestern University Law School.

"The evaluation of whether an individual presents an 'imminent threat' incorporates considerations of the relevant window of opportunity to act, the possible harm that missing the window would cause to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks against the United States."

Further, Holder denounced accusations that these killings are assassinations, noting that assassinations are unlawful killings and these killings are in self defense and thus do not violate the Executive Order banning assassinations or criminal statutes.

Even though Awlaki was specifically targeted, 2 other U.S. citizens have been killed by American strikes in Yemen, including Awlaki's son, yet those 2 were not specifically targeted.

Awlaki and fellow American citizen  Samir Khan were killed in a September  30, 2011, drone strike.  Khan was never charged with a crime by the Justice Department, but was alleged to have been an avid propagandist for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, said that the logic behind the legal killing of American citizens mentioned by Holder is "chillingly broad."

"While the speech is a gesture towards additional transparency, it is ultimately a defense of the government's chillingly broad claimed authority to conduct targeted killings of civilians, including American citizens, far from any battlefield without judicial review or public scrutiny," Shamsi said Tuesday.

"Because the United States is in an armed conflict, we are authorized to take action against enemy belligerents under international law," Holder said Tuesday. "The Constitution empowers the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of violent attack. And international law recognizes the inherent right of national self-defense. None of this is changed by the fact that we are not in a conventional war."

In addition to the more recent strikes, the American government has killed U.S. citizens abroad since the War on Terror began including Kamal Derwish, a member of the "Lackawanna 6" terror group during a CIA Predator drone strike in 2002.

The War on Terror is a very serious one that should not be taken lightly. Yet, it is disconcerting that the federal government has the power to broadly exercise this power and could potentially extend it to threats that may not actually be imminent while being immune from judicial review.

The realm of War is generally left to the legislative and executive branches. Accordingly, it is unclear whether the federal judiciary would ever entertain a constitutional challenge to  one of these killings.

What do you think?

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