February 4, 2013; Source: NBC News

NBC News reporter Michael Isikoff has obtained a secret U.S. Department of Justice white paper that provides details suggesting how the U.S. government can kill American citizens suspected of being terrorist leaders even if there is no evidence to suggest that they are involved in an active plan to attack. The 16-page memo is available here. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has previously stated that killing Americans without trial is constitutional if they pose “an imminent threat of violent attack,” but the white paper introduces a “broader concept of imminence.” That broadening renders the word’s typical meaning meaningless, according to American Civil Liberties Union Deputy Director Jameel Jaffer. Jaffer responded to NBC’s reporting on the confidential memo on the ACLU website, noting, in part:

“The paper’s basic contention is that the government has the authority to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen if ‘an informed, high-level official’ deems him to present a ‘continuing’ threat to the country. This sweeping authority is said to exist even if the threat presented isn’t imminent in any ordinary sense of that word, even if the target has never been charged with a crime or informed of the allegations against him, and even if the target is not located anywhere near an actual battlefield. The white paper purports to recognize some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are so vague and elastic that they will be easily manipulated.”

According to the white paper, such killings wouldn’t be a war crime or violate a U.S. executive order against assassinations because “a lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination” and “the use of lethal force, consistent with the laws of war, against an individual who is a legitimate military target would be lawful and would not violate the assassination ban.” In the past, however, it has generally been thought that credible and specific evidence of a planned attack is necessary to justify such an extrajudicial killing.

The white paper’s language on who could exercise this authority—an “informed, high-level” official—appears to leave significant room for interpretation. Jaffer’s post concludes, “Even if the Obama administration is convinced of its own fundamental trustworthiness, the power this white paper sets out will be available to every future president—and every ‘informed high-level official’ (!)—in every future conflict. As I said to Isikoff, that’s truly a chilling thought.”

If the nonprofit sector is fundamentally concerned about the protection and advancement of rights, it seems we may need to remind one another that the right not to be executed by one’s government with zero due process is generally taken as a given in this nation. Few would argue with the notion that U.S. forces need the authority to kill imminent (in the traditional meaning of the word) threats where evidence of planned attacks exists, but the broad and vague language of this white paper suggests more sweeping powers in this arena, which is extraordinarily troubling. –Mike Keefe-Feldman