Holder Speaks On Targeting Terrorism Suspects

Attorney General Eric Holder spoke in Chicago on Monday on the legal rationales for targeting and killing Americans suspected of terrorism overseas. Carrie Johnson talks to Melissa Block.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, the U.S. Attorney General weighed in on a highly controversial legal question: When is it acceptable to use lethal force against Americans suspected of terrorism? It's a question that came to the fore last year with the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen who joined al-Qaida. Attorney General Eric Holder laid out the Obama administration's legal reasoning during a speech in Chicago today on national security. Here's some of what he had to say.

ERIC HOLDER: The unfortunate reality is that our nation will likely continue to face terrorist threat that at times originate with our own citizens. When such individuals take up arms against this country and join al-Qaida in plotting attacks designed to kill their fellow Americans, there may be only one realistic and appropriate response: We must take steps to stop them in full accordance with the Constitution. In this hour of danger, we simply cannot afford to wait until deadly plans are carried out, and we will not.

BLOCK: We're joined by NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson to talk more about that.

And, Carrie, this goes back to the case of the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaida operative who was killed last September in Yemen, killed by a drone strike.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Yes, Mr. Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico in 1971. He ultimately became affiliated with al-Qaida in Yemen, and the U.S. government believed him to be a senior operational leader there, a man directing plots, including the underwear bombing plot a few years back. The U.S. eventually put him on a kill list, on a target list, and last September he was killed in a joint CIA-military operation.

BLOCK: And he was the first U.S. citizen deliberately targeted in this way by the U.S. government?

JOHNSON: Yes, as far as we know in this conflict. And that raised a lot of questions, both politically and legally. People wanted to know when it's justified to actually kill an American. And many people believe this key question is whether or not Mr. Al-Awlaki got due process. He wasn't publicly charged with a crime. His case never went before a judge in the U.S., and yet he was killed.

BLOCK: Which brings us to the speech today by the attorney general in Chicago. What did Mr. Holder have to say? When is it justified in the administration's view to kill an American?

JOHNSON: Well, the U.S. drone program remains covert, and the administration has been very reluctant to talk about it. They only use euphemisms like targeted killing.

Today, Attorney General Holder gave a few rationales. First of all, he says the person has to be overseas and has to be a senior or an operational leader affiliated with al-Qaida. The threat that person presents has to be an imminent threat. The target must be in a place where the foreign government can't or won't capture the person and take him alive. And here, he must be actively taking up arms against U.S. persons and the U.S. government.

BLOCK: Carrie, this has been a hotly debated issue for some time. Why this speech now, do you figure?

JOHNSON: Well, we know that there have been several Freedom of Information Act lawsuits seeking more information about this program and the legal standards involved. There's been a lot of internal administration debate among the State Department, the Pentagon, the Justice Department, and even the White House level. And Attorney General Holder ultimately decided he wanted to make a speech.

But I don't think this is going to put anything to rest, Melissa, because there's still a demand for more information on what gets you on this list in the first place, how you can contest it, and what happens to people who get caught in the crossfire.

BLOCK: So, not enough to satisfy the critics of this policy, you think?

JOHNSON: Certainly not. Already, legal scholars on the left end of the spectrum, political spectrum are saying: We want more information. This feels to us like the rendition and enhanced interrogation program in the Bush years. This is a very serious step, and we need to know more about how somebody gets on this list.

BLOCK: OK, Carrie. Thank you very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Carrie Johnson, NPR's justice correspondent.

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