Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Does the U.S. government have the right to kill its own citizens?

Undated handout image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft.


A Hellfire missile obliterated a 16-year-old American citizen in Yemen last fall.

U.S. President Barrack Obama personally signs off on all such "targeted killings," and while most are directed against foreigners – usually Muslims suspected of being radical jihadists – at least three Americans are among the hundreds killed in the last three years in drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. Hellfire missiles fired from unmanned Predators have become the president's preferred means of dealing "justice" overseas.

The 16-year-old, reportedly sitting among a group of men at a roadside café in Yemen, was Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical Muslim cleric widely suspected of recruiting jihadists for attacks on the United States. Mr. al-Awlaki had been killed two weeks earlier in another Hellfire missile strike along with another U.S. citizen, Samir Khan, a propagandist for al-Qaeda in Yemen. It remains unknown whether the 16-year-old was killed because he was the son of a suspected al-Qaeda figure or whether he was so-called collateral damage and someone else in the group was the target okayed by Mr. Obama.

Story continues below advertisement

At issue is whether the president, any president, can simply sign a death warrant for a U.S. citizen overseas or whether Constitutional guarantees of "due process" require more than an Oval Office checklist.

While many Americans savaged former U.S. President George W. Bush for approving harsh measures, including so-called enhanced interrogation techniques that many, including the current president, deplored as inhumane and tantamount to torture, the targeted killing on Mr. Obama's watch of a handful U.S. citizen has attracted little outrage.

Now two rights groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights are suing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Central Intelligence Director David Petraeus, among others, in an attempt to pull back the curtain on Mr. Obama's murky program of selective assassination.

They can't sue the president directly; he has immunity.

The suit was filed earlier this month on behalf of Nasser al-Awlaki, the father and grandfather of Anwar and Abdulrahman and Sarah Khan, the mother of Samir Khan.

The Obama administration claims "targeted killings" are completely legal.

The simple explanation, as given by Attorney General Eric Holder, in a long speech last March states that: "'Due process' and 'judicial process' are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security." In the view of the Obama administration, "the Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process," Mr. Holder said.

Story continues below advertisement

That bizarre interpretation of the Constitution is what the current lawsuit aims to challenge.

"For obvious reasons the government's authority to kill people summarily without judicial process is very limited," said Jameel Jaffer, legal director of the ACLU.

He admits there are some exceptions: a police officer faced with an imminent threat from an armed assailant or a soldier at war on a foreign battlefield. Both domestic and international law sanction such killing as lawful within limits. But the use of lethal force – away from an active war zone – has traditionally been limited to thwarting a grave and imminent threat, not substituting for the long, convoluted, process of charge, arrest, trial, conviction and punishment.

"The questions here is whether the government is justified in killing them without charging them with anything or trying them for anything," Mr. Jaffer said, adding that the ACLU fully acknowledges the very serious allegations of terrorism against Anwar al-Awlaki.

Taking a page out of the Bush playbook, Mr. Holder said legal opinions – prepared secretly because of national security implications and therefore not available – have concluded that "targeted killings" are legal.

Mr. Jaffer disputes that.

Story continues below advertisement

"While the case is complicated in some ways, ultimately it is very simple. Our argument is that when the government is killing its own citizens it has an obligation to explain why," he said.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to