With A Citizen In The Crosshairs, Where's The Line Drawn For Drones?

The Obama administration is considering targeting an American citizen who is suspected of plotting a terrorist attack. The possibility again raises questions about U.S. drone policy and whether an American's citizenship rights are lost once that person joins a terrorist organization.

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And I'm Melissa Block.

The public is getting a glimpse of what's been a top secret debate in the Obama administration: Whether to target and kill a suspected terrorist with a drone strike. The administration hasn't revealed the suspect's identity, but he's reported to be an American citizen living in Pakistan. Among the many legal questions that raises is this one: Does a U.S. citizen lose constitutional rights by plotting to attack Americans?

NPR's Bruce Auster has our report.

BRUCE AUSTER, BYLINE: A lot of legal talk about constitutional rights can seem kind of dry: equal protection under the law, due process, it's important. But when you're talking about drone strikes, it gets a little more tangible.

AMOS GUIORA: I mean it's not only stripping you of your immunity or protections as a citizen, the ramifications or consequences are clear: You're going to be killed.

AUSTER: That's Amos Guiora. He's a law professor at the University of Utah. And as he notes, the stakes are high.

The Obama administration has said that American citizenship cannot be used as a shield. If you join al-Qaida and plot against Americans, consider yourself a target. And the United States has targeted and killed one American, Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric said to have been involved in several plots, including the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a plane bound for Detroit in 2009. Three other Americans have been killed in drone strikes but not targeted. Now there's talk in Washington of going after another citizen.

Mike Rogers is a Republican from Michigan and heads the House Intelligence Committee. He calls for using drones to target and kill terrorists.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS: Today, individuals who would have been previously removed from the battlefield by U.S. counterterrorism operations for attacking or plotting to attack against U.S. interests remain free because of self-imposed red tape.

AUSTER: But what one person calls red tape, another calls the Constitution. And that's what this is about. To save the lives of Americans, can we kill an American who's gone over to the other side?

Amos Guiora has an answer. He knows this stuff and not just because he's a law professor.

GUIORA: Served for 20 years in the Israel Defense Forces while serving as the legal adviser to the Gaza Strip '94 to '97, I was involved in targeted killing decision making.

AUSTER: His problem with the U.S. process is that the decision to target and kill is made without any review by the courts.

GUIORA: They're making the leap from saying you are suspected of involvement in something, to saying you are guilty of involvement in something. And even though you may be an American citizen, your citizenship has become irrelevant.

AUSTER: Now, the Obama administration will say no, there are strict rules for deciding who might end up on an official kill list. First there must be solid intelligence pointing to a person's involvement in a plot. On top of that, the suspect must be a senior operational leader of a terrorist group, like al-Qaida.

GUIORA: I've been in the business 20 years or more. I have no idea what senior operational al-Qaida leader means. I just don't know what that means.

AUSTER: It's too loose a definition. How senior is senior? What's operational? What's al-Qaida? It's not that American citizenship should provide someone the immunity to plot to kill other Americans. But ultimately, Guiora says, the decision to kill an American citizen must rest on ground that's a little less slippery.

Bruce Auster, NPR News, Washington

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