Drone strikes on U.S. citizens legal in some cases, attorney general says



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WASHINGTON — United States Attorney General Eric Holder announced that drone strikes could be carried out on American citizens on U.S. soil in "extraordinary circumstances" Monday.

In a one-page letter addressed to Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, Holder responded to Paul and other senators' request about whether deadly drone strikes could ever be used in the U.S. Holder said the "U.S. government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so."

Holder said that law enforcement, as opposed to military force, was the preferred method for combating a terrorist threat, but he would not rule out a situation where a drone strike was appropriate.

"The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur and one we hope no President will ever have to confront," Holder writes. "It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.


It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States.

–Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General


"For example," Holder continued, "the president could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstance of a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001."

Speaking on Fox News Tuesday, Paul condemned the attorney general's statement.

"The thing about the drone strike program is we're talking about someone's actively attacking America — we're not talking about planes flying into the World Trade Center," he said. "What we're talking about is, you're eating dinner in your house, you're eating at a cafe or you're walking down the road. That's when these drone strikes can occur. It's not about people involved in combat — it's about people who they think might be."

Paul previously said he would fight to hold up the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA if he was not given a full answer to the Obama administration's policy on drone strikes in the U.S. Brennan had defended the use of drones overseas at his confirmation hearing a few weeks ago, but did not speak to drones targeting American citizens in the U.S.

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Brennan, too, responded to Paul, saying: "I can, however, state unequivocally that the agency I have been nominated to lead, the CIA, does not conduct lethal operations inside the United States — nor does it have any authority to do so. Thus, if I am fortunate enough to be confirmed as CIA Director, I would have no ‘power' to authorize such operations."

Sen. Mike Lee, on Wednesday, called on Holder to release the Department of Justice memorandum that provides a legal justification for targeting American citizens, saying "it raises more questions than it answers."

"I've heard the committee express the desire to see this memoranda and I will see — but I better be careful — I will be bringing that to the attention of the appropriate people in the administration," Holder said. "I am not unsympathetic to what you are saying."

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"I will bring that desire and my view to the … people who are in a position to make those kinds of those determinations," Holder added. "I am only one of those people."

Lee asked about the "imminent threat" of targeted Americans, saying a leaked version of the memorandum states that clear evidence that an attack will take place is not needed.

"Part of the problem is what you talked about in the previous question," Holder responded. "I think that white paper becomes more clear if it can be read in conjunction with the underlying OLC advice."

Holder added that his definition of imminent threat is incorporated in three factors: "A relevant window of opportunity to attack, the possible harm missing the window could cause on civilians, and third, the likelihood of heading off all future disasters to attacks against the United States. I do think, without taking a position one way or the other, it is one of the strongest reasons why the sharing of the opinions — the OLC advice — to the committee makes sense."

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Josh Furlong

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