Holder gives legal defense for al-Awlaki killing

By Nedra Pickler

Associated Press

Published: Monday, March 5 2012 3:05 p.m. MST

Attorney General Eric Holder, center, talks to a group of law students before delivering an address at the Northwestern University law school, Monday, March 5, 2012, in Chicago.

Brian Kersey, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday that the decision to kill a U.S. citizen living abroad who poses a terrorist threat "is among the gravest that government leaders can face," but justified lethal action as legal and sometimes necessary in the war on terror.

Holder's comments broke the administration's silence on the legal justifications for its decision to kill American-born al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki five months ago in Yemen. In a speech prepared for delivery at Northwestern University law school in Chicago, he described al-Awlaki as concocting plans to kill Americans but he never explicitly acknowledged the administration responded by targeting the cleric for death.

Instead the attorney general outlined a three-part test for determining when a targeted killing against a U.S. citizen is legal. He said the government must determine after careful review that the citizen poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the U.S., capture is not feasible and the killing would be consistent with laws of war.

The Obama administration has refused to release the Justice Department legal opinion on al-Awlaki's killing under the Freedom of Information Act and is in court opposing efforts to have it made public.

Responding to criticism from civil libertarians, Holder flatly rejected the suggestion that the Constitution's due process protections require the president to get permission from a federal court before taking lethal action.

"The unfortunate reality is that our nation will likely continue to face terrorist threats that at times originate with our own citizens," Holder said in prepared text released by the Justice Department. "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."

Al-Awlaki's killing in a joint CIA-U.S. military drone strike on a convoy in Yemen sparked a public debate over whether the president should have the authority to kill an American without a conviction and despite an executive order banning assassinations — which Holder called a "loaded term" that doesn't apply in this case. Until now the Obama administration has said very little about it publicly as administration officials have debated how much to reveal in response to the criticism.

The day that al-Awlaki was killed, President Barack Obama said his death was "a major blow to al-Qaida's most active operational affiliate" and "another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al-Qaida." But he did not acknowledge publicly that the United States was responsible for the drone attack, which was confirmed by counterterrorism officials.

Al-Awlaki was a cleric who was born in New Mexico and once preached at an Islamic center in Falls Church, Va. His sermons in English are posted all over the Internet and his name has been associated with several attempted terrorist attacks. The Justice Department has said that a Nigerian man who tried to blow up an international flight on Christmas 2009 told FBI agents that his mission was approved after a three-day visit with al-Awlaki.

Obama administration officials told The Associated Press that Obama approved al-Awlaki's killing in April 2010, when he became the first American placed on the CIA "kill or capture" list.

"Any decision to use lethal force against a United States citizen — even one intent on murdering Americans and who has become an operational leader of al-Qaida in a foreign land — is among the gravest that government leaders can face," Holder said. "The American people can be — and deserve to be — assured that actions taken in their defense are consistent with their values and their laws."

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