Targeted Killings of Americans: Three Things to Know

Targeted Killings of Americans: Three Things to Know

February 6, 2013 11:18 am (EST)

Targeted Killings of Americans: Three Things to Know
Explainer Video

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.

More From Our Experts
  • 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.

Top Stories on CFR

Pharmaceuticals and Vaccines

The swift development of effective vaccines against COVID-19 was an unprecedented scientific achievement. But production challenges, vaccine nationalism, and new variants have all presented hurdles.

United States

Spurred on by worsening economic and political crises across Latin America, migration to the United States reached record levels in 2022. Here’s a look at the year’s major immigration stories.


The Balkans have long been a source of tension between Russia and the West, with Moscow cultivating allies there as the EU and NATO expand into the region. The war in Ukraine might be shifting the calculus.