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Since last year, the U.S. government has killed at least three Americans. Nobody put them on trial or even arrested them. Instead, they were killed by missiles from the air fired by American drones. The anti-terrorism operations have gone ahead despite a fierce debated at home about their legal justification. The attorney general is offering his view of those strikes as NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Since President Obama took office, he's deployed drones against terrorism suspects in an unprecedented way. But the drone program is covert, so even though foreign governments and reporters have been chronicling those strikes, no U.S. official is supposed to mention them directly. Instead, they use euphemisms like targeted killing or use of force.

Here's Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday at Northwestern University Law School.

ERIC HOLDER: The president may use force abroad against a senior operational leader of a foreign terrorist organization with which the United States is at war - even if that individual happens to be a U.S. citizen.

JOHNSON: That bothers Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union.

JAMEEL JAFFER: They are claiming the authority to kill any American citizen whom the president deems to be an enemy of the state. And that authority is not reviewable before the fact by any court, and it's not reviewed after the fact by any court.

JOHNSON: Jaffer's working with the family of Anwar al Awlaki, a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico, who was killed by a drone in Yemen last September. Prosecutors say Awlaki directed the so-called underwear bomber to blow up a plane flying over Detroit in 2009 and inspired several other homegrown terrorists. But they never charged Awlaki with a crime, so he never had his day in court, raising questions about whether he got due process.

Holder says, yes.

HOLDER: The Constitution guarantees due process; it does not guarantee judicial process.

JOHNSON: And the Attorney General went on to set out his idea of that process - a broad legal rationale for targeting Americans overseas. Holder said the government analysis starts here.

HOLDER: Our legal authority is not limited to the battlefields of Afghanistan.

JOHNSON: So, because al-Qaida has spread into Yemen and Somalia, Holder argued the law that Congress passed a week after September 11th stretches to cover military action there. Second, Holder said, the administration considers whether it's acting...

HOLDER: ...with the consent of the nation involved, or after a determination that the nation is unable or unwilling to deal effectively with a threat to the United States.

JOHNSON: In other words, the U.S. wants to know whether the foreign country has the law enforcement chops and the political will, to capture a suspected terrorist while he's still alive. There's precedent for taking out an enemy leader.

During World War II, the U.S. tracked the airplane flying the commander of the Japanese Navy - the man who presided over the attack on Pearl Harbor - and shot it down.

But modern technology - in the form of drones - has introduced a new consideration, as Pentagon General Counsel, Jeh Johnson, pointed out in a recent talk at Yale University.

JEH JOHNSON: What is new is that with advances in technology, we are able to target military objectives with much more precision, to the point where we can identify, target and strike a single military objective from great distances.

HOLDER: Jaffer, of the ACLU, says many Americans seem to accept Mr. Obama's just trust us approach. But he asks...

JAFFER: Do, do you trust the next administration as well? Are you confident that the next president will use this power in a way that you think is responsible?

JOHNSON: Matthew Waxman teaches law at Columbia University. He says neither end of the political spectrum is likely to feel satisfied with the status quo.

MATTHEW WAXMAN: Even if the administration comes forward with further disclosures, many of the details about this operation are going to remain opaque.

JOHNSON: Hidden from view, Waxman says, because that's the nature of the modern fight against terrorism, which clashes with Mr. Obama's promise of transparency.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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