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White House Confirms Existence of Targeted Killing Program

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April 30, 2012

Today, the New York Times ran an ACLU op-ed about the CIA’s misuse of secrecy to withhold information from the public about the agency’s targeted killing program, which has so far killed thousands of people, including several Americans.

The piece, penned by ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer and National Security Project Legal Fellow Nathan Wessler, explains that in ACLU lawsuits about the drone strike program the CIA has consistently taken the position that it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the program or any records related to it, despite the fact that numerous other government officials have spoken about the program to the public and the press. The op-ed states,

In one of the American Civil Liberties Union’s cases relating to the targeted killing program (a case in which The New York Times is also involved), the government recently told the court that officials “at the highest level” are re-evaluating the government’s stance on the secrecy of the targeted killing program. This is a noncommittal statement, but perhaps a promising one. The administration should direct the C.I.A. to abandon its pretense that the very existence of the targeted killing program is a secret. It should also direct the C.I.A. to release the legal memos that authorized the program and the evidence it relied on to carry out the drone strikes that killed three Americans in Yemen last year.

Only hours after the op-ed was posted, the administration released its clearest acknowledgement yet of the targeted killing program. John Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism advisor, delivered remarks at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in which he publicly confirmed that the United States conducts targeted killings of suspected terrorists using drones. In his speech, Brennan insisted the targeted strikes are a “wise choice” and “legal” and within the boundaries of international law.

In a statement that we issued after the remarks, Jaffer stated,

This is an important statement — first because it includes an unambiguous acknowledgement of the targeted killing program and second because it includes the administration’s clearest explanation thus far of the program’s purported legal basis… But Mr. Brennan supplies legal conclusions, not legal analysis. We continue to believe that the administration should release the Justice Department memos underlying the program — particularly the memo that authorizes the extrajudicial killing of American terrorism suspects.

Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, added in the statement:

We continue to believe, based on the information available, that the program itself is not just unlawful but dangerous…It is dangerous to give the President the authority to order the extrajudicial killing of any person – including any American – he believes to be a terrorist. The administration insists that the program is closely supervised, but to propose that a secret deliberation that takes place entirely within the executive branch constitutes ‘due process’ is to strip the Fifth Amendment of its essential meaning.

We’ll continue to call on the government to release information about this unlawful and dangerous program. Join us in calling on the Obama administration to release information about the targeted killing program.

UPDATE: This post has been updated to add a quote from Hina Shamsi.

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