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Editorial

Holder's troubling death-by-drone rules

Atty. Gen. Eric Holder's justification of the targeted killing of suspected terrorists is deeply troubling.

March 07, 2012
  • Attorney General Eric Holder speaks about the Obama Administration's counter-terrorism policies at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.
Attorney General Eric Holder speaks about the Obama Administration's… (Tannen Maury / EPA )

Not too many debates were settled Monday when U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. detailed the Obama administration's decision-making process on targeted killings. Critics were left with as many questions as before, while supporters had a few more things to cheer about. For our part, we're as troubled as ever by drone-based assassinations — and perhaps more concerned that this nation is heading down a dangerous path.

The debates, in large part, are about priorities: At what point does the threat of a terrorist attack justify bypassing constitutional guarantees of due process, not to mention international law? Early in his speech, Holder tipped the administration's hand by suggesting the terrorist threat is truly extraordinary. "As President John F. Kennedy may have described best, 'In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger.' ... It is clear that, once again, we have reached an 'hour of danger.'"

Kennedy was talking about the threat of nuclear annihilation; we don't mean to downplay the genuine dangers posed by Al Qaeda and like groups, but they don't rise to this level. And we're uncomfortable with the broad powers Holder asserted for the president to act as judge, jury and executioner for suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens, on the basis of secret evidence.

Prosecuting a war against a non-uniformed, multinational terrorist organization is phenomenally complex, and we certainly understand the administration's conundrum. In a situation in which a terrorist leader poses a truly imminent threat, there may not be time to seek judicial review of a kill order. And yet Holder's definition of "imminent threat" is extremely vague, and we're not at all sure how it applies to, say, Anwar Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was killed in a drone strike last year in Yemen. The government claims to have secret evidence tying Awlaki to past operations, but did it really have information that showed him to be an "imminent danger" in the future? At the very least, the administration should release the Justice Department memo that lays out the legal case for such killings.

We're also troubled by Holder's assertion that the administration is free to target anyone it deems to be a terrorist, on the soil of any country it considers "unable or unwilling to deal effectively with a threat to the United States." We have to wonder how supporters of this position would feel if another country such as China or Russia were to take this approach in killing its enemies around the world. And we're more than a little disappointed at the way Democrats (including Holder and President Obama) who criticized President Bush's broad assertions of presidential powers in the war on terrorism have changed their tune now that a Democrat is in the White House.

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