U.S. to offer legal backing for "targeted killing": source

The Obama administration on Monday plans to outline how U.S. laws empower the government to kill Americans overseas who engage in terrorism against their home country, a source familiar with the matter said, months after a drone strike killed a U.S.-born cleric who plotted attacks from Yemen.

Civil liberties groups have been pressuring the administration to offer justification for what has been described as a top-secret "targeted kill" program in which Americans who have joined al Qaeda or other militants are deemed legitimate targets to be killed overseas.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder plans to address the issue and the underpinning legal principles for using lethal force during remarks at Northwestern University School of Law on Monday afternoon in Chicago, the source said Sunday on condition of anonymity.

The Obama administration has stepped up using unmanned aerial drones against terrorism suspects including the September killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric who went into hiding in Yemen who had been directing al Qaeda militants to launch several attacks against the United States.

U.S. officials have refused to talk much publicly about the program but some officials said last year that Americans like Awlaki could be placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior U.S. government officials which then informs the president of its decisions.

Holder will likely couple the justification with another argument that the administration has repeatedly made about terrorism: both traditional criminal courts and military tribunals work to prosecute terrorism suspects, the source said.

The speech will be the latest attempt by the administration to address the issue, an unusual break from past precedent of eschewing virtually any discussion about the top-secret program.

Defense Department lawyer Jeh Johnson last month referred to the so-called "targeted kill" program, saying that it pursued legitimate military targets overseas and rejected suggestions that the United States was engaged in assassination.

"Under well-settled legal principles, lethal force against a valid military objective, in an armed conflict, is consistent with the law of war and does not, by definition, constitute an 'assassination,'" Johnson said at Yale Law School.

The American Civil Liberties Union on February 1 sued the Obama administration in federal court, demanding that Holder's Justice Department release what it believes are legal memoranda justifying targeting Americans overseas using lethal force.

The ACLU called such power a "breathtaking assertion" and warned that it would be available to future presidents as well.

"At bottom, the administration is asserting the unreviewable authority to kill any American whom the president declares to be an enemy of the state," Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU's deputy legal director, said in a statement.

U.S. officials have linked Awlaki to several plots against the United States, including the 2009 Christmas Day attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a U.S. commercial airliner as it arrived in Detroit from Amsterdam with a bomb hidden in his underwear.

When the bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a U.S. prison, authorities said that Awlaki himself approved and directed the plot from Yemen.

Civil liberties groups have complained that such militants should be captured and prosecuted in a U.S. courtroom where practical. They also fiercely oppose using military courts for terrorism cases.

The Obama administration has run into difficulties trying prosecute terrorism suspects in the U.S. court system, facing criticism over giving terrorism suspects full legal rights and whether they addressed security for the trials sufficiently.

Republicans in Congress and even some of Obama's fellow Democrats have demanded that they be tried in military tribunals and blocked moving terrorism suspects from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the federal prison system.

Administration officials have insisted that terrorism suspects can be successfully prosecuted and incarcerated in both legal systems and said that the Abdulmutallab case was an example of the traditional courts working effectively.

[Source: By Jeremy Pelofsky, Reuters, Washington, 05Mar12]

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