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Targeted Killings of Americans: Three Things to Know

Speaker: Matthew C. Waxman, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Law and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
February 6, 2013

A leaked government document laying out the legal framework for "a lethal operation directed against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa'ida or an associated force," has recharged the controversy over targeted killings of Americans. Matthew C. Waxman, adjunct senior fellow for law and foreign policy at CFR, highlights three legal considerations.

  • Is the U.S. at war? If the United States is engaged in a war with al-Qaeda, "the president can, as is customary in war, detain and kill enemy fighters," Waxman explains. The leaked Department of Justice memo stipulates that this is in fact the case, though many people disagree, he says.
  • Checks and balances: The leaked memo instructs that while U.S. citizens are entitled to due process, that doesn't necessarily mean judicial process, Waxman notes. "However, if there isn't judicial review, it's especially important that we have other types of checks, including congressional oversight and strong internal executive branch review procedures," he says.
  • Legal doesn't mean wise: "The leaked document provides a legal justification for targeting some enemy American citizens, but that something is legal doesn't make it wise," says Waxman. Targeted killings must be used judiciously so as not to undermine public support for counterterrorism efforts and other foreign policy priorities, he cautions.

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