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Why Targeted Killing is “Unlawful and Dangerous”

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June 13, 2012

This morning, USA Today ran an op-ed by ACLU National Security Project director, Hina Shamsi about the U.S. government’s unlawful targeted killing program. She writes:

Today, our government is killing people in countries in which the United States is not at war. It reportedly adds suspected terrorists — including U.S. citizens — to “kill lists” for months at a time, which by definition cannot be limited to genuinely imminent threats. The New York Times disclosed that the government “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants” unless intelligence proves them innocent — but only after they are dead.

When mistakes are made, our nation refuses to acknowledge them and does not compensate victims. The first Yemeni missile strike President Obama authorized, in December 2009, targeted alleged militants but killed 21 children and 14 women. WikiLeaks revealed a secret agreement by Yemen to accept responsibility for the U.S. killing. Yemenis were enraged, but most Americans probably never heard about it.

Hina also appeared on MSNBC’s Up w/ Chris Hayes last week to discuss the targeted killing program.


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As Hina pointed out on the show, the Obama administration’s lack of transparency about the government’s “kill list” is incredibly troubling:

We have had a program that was begun under the Bush administration but vastly expanded and accelerated by the Obama administration and this is a program in which the Executive Branch – the president – claims the authority to unilaterally declare people enemies of the state, including US citizens, and order their killing based on secret legal criteria, secret process and secret evidence.

Indeed, the government’s response to the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuits seeking information about drones strikes is an example of what Hina called a “cynical secrecy game.” While John Brennan publicly confirms the existence of the program and a recent New York Times article cites three dozen current and former advisors to President Obama who are willing to discuss its details anonymously, the administration still refuses to acknowledge the program’s very existence in a court of law. (For more on the secrecy issue, read this op-ed by Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, and Nate Wessler, National Security Project Fellow.)

Next week in Geneva, two senior U.N. human rights experts will join the ACLU and other groups for a panel discussion on the human rights implications of the targeted killing policy. The officials are Ben Emmerson, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, and Christof Heyns, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, and the panel will take place in connection with the U.N. Human Rights Council’s June meeting. The international implications of U.S. policy are important. As Hina points out in USA Today:

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan admits that the U.S. targeted killing program sets a precedent. Russia, China or Iran may claim tomorrow, as our government does today, the power to declare individuals enemies of the state and kill them far from any battlefield, based on secret legal criteria, secret evidence and a secret process. That is the world we are unleashing unless the program is stopped.

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