Human Rights First Calls Legal Justification for Targeted Killing Flawed

White Paper on Targeted Killings Released in Advance of Brennan Confirmation Hearing

Washington, D.C. – Human Rights First today criticized key aspects of the government’s legal justification for the targeted killing of American citizens abroad based on a Department of Justice (DOJ) White Paper obtained and released by NBC News late last night. The White Paper, which addresses in some detail the legal justifications for the lethal targeting of American citizens, was released just days before the Senate intelligence committee will hold its confirmation hearing for CIA Director nominee John Brennan, who is sure to face questions about America’s drone operations.

“The government’s legal analysis redefines the meaning of an imminent threat and infeasibility of capture,” said Human Rights First’s Dixon Osburn.

According to the White Paper, an “imminent threat” necessary to give rise to the use of force “does not require the United States to have clear evidence that specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”

“The administration’s concept of ‘imminent threat’ appears to require neither imminence nor a specific threat,” said Osburn.  “Accepted principles of international law require both.”

Regarding feasibility of capture, the White Paper states that “capture would not be feasible if it could not be physically effectuated during the relevant window of opportunity or if the relevant country were to decline to consent to a capture operation.”

“Imminence is not a window of opportunity to kill,” added Osburn.

While the DOJ White Paper provides some important new detail regarding the government’s view of its legal authority to kill Americans, there are a lot of outstanding questions that should still be answered, Human Rights First notes. Yesterday, a bi-partisan group of Senators sent a letter to President Obama requesting that he provide to the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees “any and all legal opinions that lay out the executive branch’s official understanding of the President’s authority to deliberately kill American citizens.” Repeated congressional requests for such legal opinions–including from the chair and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee–have not been met by the executive branch.

“It’s time now for the government to disclose to relevant congressional committees and the public all the operative legal and policy guidance governing targeted killings,” said Osburn.

Human Rights First also notes that John Brennan will have a chance to address in some detail the justification for the targeted killings of Americans during his confirmation hearing on Thursday. Osburn notes, “John Brennan should clearly explain what steps he would take as CIA Director to ensure that targeted killings are conducted transparently and within the law. He should start by ensuring that the administration complies with all outstanding document requests on the targeted killing program.”

For more information on U.S. targeted killing practice, see Human Rights First’s blueprint, How to Ensure That the U.S. Drone Program Does Not Undermine Human Rights.


Published on February 5, 2013


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