After repeated attempts to get answers by Sen. Rand Paul (R. Ky.) as to whether a drone strike could be used on an American citizen on American soil, Attorney General Eric Holder issued a response in a letter dated March 4, confirming that, yes, President Obama can assassinate Americans in the United States without due process via drone strike.
Though Holder writes in the letter that the administration “has no intention” of using a drone strike domestically and that “we reject the use of military force where well-established law enforcement authorities in this country provide the best means for incapacitating a terrorist threat,” he goes on to state:
It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.
This is the first time a member of the Obama administration has confirmed that they believe that they can use drone strikes domestically. Before this, the question would usually be dodged when administration members were asked about it.
At a confirmation hearing on Feb. 7, John Brennan, the chief counterterrorism adviser for President Obama and architect and director of the administration’s drone strike program and then-nominee for director of the CIA, was asked whether the administration could use drone strikes domestically. Instead of giving a simple yes or no answer, Brennan said he was determined to “optimize transparency on these issues, but at the same time, optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security.”
Brennan was again asked about domestic drone strikes in a written question from a Senate Intelligence Committee and again refused to say yes or no, responding, “This Administration has not carried out drone strikes inside the United States and has no intention of doing so.”
Obama himself was asked about domestic drone strikes in a video Q&A over Google+ last month, giving a long, 224 word response:
There has never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil. We respect and have a whole bunch of safeguards in terms of how we conduct counterterrorism operations outside of the United States. The rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States. In part, because our capacity to capture a terrorist inside the United States are very different than in the foothills or mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan, but what I think is absolutely true is that it is not sufficient for citizens to take my word for it that we’re doing the right thing. I am the head of the Executive Branch, and what we’ve done so far is to try to work with Congress on oversight issues. But part of what I’m going to have to work with Congress on is to make sure that, whatever it is we’re providing Congress, we have mechanisms to also make sure that the public understands what’s going on, what the constraints are, what the legal parameters are, and that’s something I take very seriously. I’m not somebody who believes that the president has the authority to do whatever he wants, or whatever she wants, whenever they want, just under the guise of counterterrorism. There have to be checks and balances on it.
The drone program has caused controversy due to the high level of civilians killed in Pakistan and other countries when targeting militants. While these strikes haven’t occurred within the United States, the president maintains that he has the authority to assassinate American citizens, anywhere in the world, without due process.
Three Americans have been killed by drones in the past. In 2011, Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and magazine publisher Samir Khan, both born in the United States, were killed in Yemen by a drone.
Shortly after, al-Awlaki’s son, 16-year-old Abdulrahman, was killed by a drone strike. Abdulrahman was not suspected of terrorism. He was in Yemen searching for his father. To this day, the White House refuses to give a reason for his assassination.
Last month, a document that laid out the legal justification for drone strikes was released from within the Justice Department to NBC News. The document states that a member of the U.S. government determines targets for strikes and that no evidence that a target is going to commit violence is needed for a strike to be conducted.