Foreign Policy

Obama: I Can Still Kill a U.S. Citizen Without a Trial


Buried in this Washington Post story about Nobel Peace laureate Obama's Newest War, in Yemen:

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. The evidence has to meet a certain, defined threshold. The person, for instance, has to pose "a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests," said one former intelligence official.

The Obama administration has adopted the same stance. If a U.S. citizen joins al-Qaeda, "it doesn't really change anything from the standpoint of whether we can target them," a senior administration official said. "They are then part of the enemy."

NEXT: Democratic Party: Low as a Nixon-Felled GOP, Heading for the New 1994?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I got no problem with this. It doesn’t matter to me whether someone determined to be engaged in armed conflict with the US happens to be a US citizen; they are a legitimate target regardless.

    Now, perhaps some definitional work needs to be done around “determined” and “armed conflict against the US”, but I think the principle is sound.

    1. Why would you need this for anything other than sanctioned single target missions?

      If you’re serving in some capacity for the military you can protect yourself, especially given the current climate. I imagine the same rules stand for US security forces abroad protecting politicians per agreements with governments.

      So why would you need this for anything but sanctioned hits?

      1. Why would you need this for anything other than sanctioned single target missions?

        Cuz if you did not have it any army just needs to pay huge sums of money to an American to fight on their side and American soldiers could not fire a shot at that army for fear of hitting a traitor.

    2. Isn’t Iron Rule #6 reason enough to deny the abridgement of a US Citizen’s presumed innocence? Today, its a US citizen “we just know” is a terrorist. Tomorrow, it’s some libertarian militia nut “we just know” if plotting the overthrow of the Government.

  2. The evidence has to meet a certain, defined threshold.

    And that “threshold” is a, you know,

    State secret.

  3. Can’t the government simply revoke the offending person’s citizenship prior to offing them?

    1. Probably not. And if they can, I believe that some sort of due process is required.

  4. If a US citizen joins up with al Qaida and is killed in the field during combat, or by a smart bomb programmed to only kill bad people, then fine.

    If a US citizen is captured in the field and the operational commander decides to put two in his skull, that’s less fine.

    Also: The person, for instance, has to pose “a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests,” said one former intelligence official.

    I can think of a few citizens of Washington, DC that this standard applies to.

    1. If a US citizen is captured in the field and the operational commander decides to put two in his skull, that’s less fine.

      Too bad. While it’s less fine, it’s happened throughout history and I have no doubt that it’s going to happen more the less confident operational commanders are that the captured person will not be able to rejoin the fight.

      Hopefully the good will outweigh the bad, but one risk of focusing just on stopping internment of prisoners was always additional deaths in the field and fewer captures.

      1. John, it’s unclear whether you’re merely describing an obvious but horrible truth, or whether you’re actually making an attempt to justify this particular horrific policy. Please clarify so I know in what way to dismiss your comment.

    2. Why not launch hundreds of thousands of “smart bomb[s] programmed to only kill bad people” all over the world? Result, nirvana! Except that, since Obama has essentially proclaimed himself a murderer, he might take out himself.

      1. We’ll have to arrest him for that.


    3. It would be pretty hard to argue that a person captured on the battlefield poses “a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests,”

  5. You’re gonna find yourself on a list, if you keep talking like that, Mister Akston. I hope you like driving.

  6. It’s like some of you people have never seen an episode of 24.

  7. Why the limit to doing it ‘abroad’? This is the US govt and US citizens. If I (hypothetically) am going to do something violent the Feds want to stop, I’m much more likely to (hypothetically) hurt Americans if I do it here instead of over there.

    What argument does anyone have for them not to be able to do it anywhere, other than wanting to appear ‘moderate’ for now?

    1. The restriction of regular US armed forces has both a long history and the Posse Comitatus Act.

      Of course, during Katrina, people bitched about GWB not ignoring the Posse Comitatus Act, then they (and others) bitched about proposed changes that would have made it so that the US Armed Forces could have been used in Katrina with less permission from Gov. Blanco.

      1. Posse Comitatus wouldn’t apply. The PC restrictions are for the use of federal troops in law enforcement. Straight up search and destroy missions are not law enforcement by anybody’s standards. Nothing except no operational need to do so prevents the military from conducting combat operations on American soil.

        If the fed gov decides you, hapless American citizen, are posing that imminent threat and decides to send Delta or a Marine rifle company after your dumb ass it is perfectly legal under the authorization for use of military force. Hell, DOJ said as much back in ’06.

        Practically speaking, all this means is when the next Waco or Ruby Ridge happens, they’ll claim it was legal for this reason.

  8. Obama. Barry Obama.

  9. Anwar Al-Aulaqi is on the list.

    And if Al-Aulaqi was in the United States, it would be very, very difficult for the government to secure a conviction for anything he has been accused of doing.

    Al-Aulaqi delivers sermons that talk in general terms about the moral circumstances that would justify the use of insurrectionary violence. If Al-Aulaqi deserves assassination, every last Marxist professor in the United States deserves assassination too.

    That is why this issue deserves attention. No one is complaining about shooting at American citizens who actually appear on live-fire battlefields. They’re complaining because, apparently, the threshold for making it on to the list is much, much lower than the threshold needed to be subject to a criminal indictment or extradition.

  10. The difficulty, Fluffy, is that there are vanishingly few live-fire battlefields in our dirty war with the jihadists.

    There is also a moral imperative to kill as few civilians as possible.

    You put those together, and you get targeted fire missions intended to kill only one or a small handful of people.

    What the administration is saying is that those fire missions are OK, even if one of the targets is a US citizen.

    As we are learning to our sorrow, applying highly bureaucratized review and approval for those missions (like you would for a criminal indictment or extradition) means that you will miss most of your opportunities.

  11. You put those together, and you get targeted fire missions intended to kill only one assassinations…

    Fixed that for you.

    As we are learning to our sorrow, applying highly bureaucratized review and approval for those missions (like you would for a criminal indictment or extradition) means that you will miss most of your opportunities.

    To whose sorrow? I am not sorry at all that opportunities to assassinate US citizens abroad who have been convicted of no crime and who are not actively engaged in violence against US forces have been lost.

    Even if this was a declared war, like WWII, I would oppose it. If this was 1943, and a US citizen was living in Switzerland, writing articles stating that he thought that Japan was entitled to attack the US, or that the Germans were provoked into war by the Versailles treaty, or what you, entering Switzerland to assassinate him would be a barbarous, unconstitutional, and tyrannical act. Sorry.

  12. International secret man hunts have tended to turn out pretty shitty PR wise and ethically. Just ask Israel.

    1. Really though? Because the way I see it they get many more kudos than condemnations for those manhunts, even when all they did was kill civilians.

    2. But they are better than full on wars.

  13. I understand that it seems expedient and, to use a favored word nowadays, pragmatic to let the U.S. government whack whoever it wants to whenever it gets the opportunity. And I understand that it is useless to argue that this is unprincipled because that’s not pragmatic. Okay, fine. I just wonder what all of you pragmatists plan to do when this gets out of control. And it will.

  14. “We can’t have four more years of the failed policies of the Bush Administration.”

    “What’s that you say? Huh, a lot of the same policies as Bush.”

    “Yes we can. Hope and change. Fatcats..special interest…transparency…cspan….ah, the hell with it…yes we can!”

  15. Yes eggs will be broken and omlets, once again, will fail to be made.

  16. Remind me again which candidate the liberaltarians were rooting for? Frankly I’m not seeing much difference between what El Jefe is doing and what the left imagined McCain would do.

  17. Bring on the Hopium!

  18. Who are you, brave and anonymous “military and intelligence officials?” Where do you lurk, nameless “former intelligence official?” From whose staff do you hail from, “senior administration official?” Pseudonym’d commenters on the internet want to know.

  19. I don’t understand why this is a problem. If you are on a battlefield and an American citizen has joined the other side it would seem kind of stupid to require a court order to fire back.

    Anyway American soldiers on foreign soil shooting traitors is not the problem.

    American soldier on foreign soil for no good reason is the problem.

    1. The issue is of course not on the battlefield where the rules of war apply. The issue is an assassination order on a SUSPECTED terrorist who has had no chance to defend himself from that SUSPECTED label.

      This is about ordering drones to take out houses or cars, as the article mentions, that are carrying people on the Bad Guy list of the administration. Can they challenge being on the Bad Guy List? Does anyone who sees the list have any incentive at all to make sure it is correct? I seriously doubt it.

    2. Actually, this report has nothing to do with allowing the armed forces to kill Americans running around in with the Taliban in Afghanistan or something like that.

      It’s about whether or not we’re going to allow the state to put someone’s name on a list, and because their name is on that list the CIA and army are allowed to find them sleeping in a hotel room in Italy or in a house somewhere in Yemen and kill them.

  20. And again, the same folks who are reasonably wary of the government’s ability to provide housing, healthcare, and a comprehensive education for everyone, have all the faith in the world that their demonstrably corrupt and incompetent government can tell who is a terrorist and who deserves assassination (despite Lord Reagan’s 1981 executive order banning the practice), with the added benefit and comfort of knowing that the scores of innocent men, women, and children who are clumsily and brutally killed in the process are not, thank Christ Almighty, Americans.

    At least leftists are consistent in their thinking.

    1. Gerald Ford, 1976, EO 11905 was the first to ban assassination. Not Reagan.

      1. I didn’t know who was the first. I was only aware of Reagan’s order.

        Ford, huh? That lovable klutz!

  21. At least leftists are consistent in their thinking.


    And you were doing so well…

    1. You’re right, that didn’t sound good. I only meant that I expect leftists to trust the state to do things right in the face of zero evidence that the state does things right.

      I definitely didn’t mean to imply the left wasn’t as chock full of hypocrisy as the folks here who think this policy is a good idea.

      I thank you for your nudge.

  22. Why do people even bother to discuss this? Does anyone seriously think that if you revoke secret agents’ license to kill, that they won’t continue to kill people in……secret?

  23. How is putting Anwar Al-Aulaqi on the death list constitutional? Short of him being present on an active battlefield, if Obama orders an execution this would be a clear violation of his due process rights and everything else that we cherish as Americans.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.