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ACLU to Obama: ‘Entire World is Not a War Zone’

April 29, 2010

(This article is re-posted from Common Dreams.)

The American Civil Liberties Union has sent a strongly-worded letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to end an alleged program that allows ‘targeted killings’ of terror suspects outside of war zones.

In the letter (PDF), the civil liberties group argues that the alleged program — which, according to news reports, is now targeting at least one US citizen — is unlawful and unconstitutional, and could set a dangerous precedent leading to foreign governments killing people on US soil.

“The program that you have reportedly authorized appears to envision the use of lethal force not just on the battlefield in Iraq, Afghanistan, or even the Pakistani border regions, but anywhere in the world, including against individuals who may not constitute lawful targets,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero stated in the letter.

“The entire world is not a war zone, and wartime tactics that may be permitted on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be deployed anywhere in the world where a terrorism suspect happens to be located.”

Romero’s letter came the same day as a House foreign affairs subcommittee convened to probe the legal issues surrounding the use of targeted killings. It also comes in the wake of a series of news reports suggesting the US’s use of targeted killings has expanded significantly in recent months.

In February, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair announced that the United States may target its own citizens abroad for death if it believes they are associated with terrorist groups.

“We take direct action against terrorists in the intelligence community,” Blair told the House Intelligence Committee. He said US counter-terrorism officials may try to kill American citizens embroiled in extremist groups overseas with “specific permission” from higher up.

If “we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that,” Blair said.

Earlier this month, news reports indicated that Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was added to the CIA’s list of alleged terrorists the US has targeted to kill.

Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico and served for years as an imam in the United States. He has not been charged with a crime, but was linked by US officials to Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the psychiatrist alleged to have killed 13 at an Army base in Fort Hood, as well as Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “Christmas day” bomber who attempted to detonate a jetliner en route to Detroit.

“Such a program of long-premeditated and bureaucratized killing is plainly not limited to targeting genuinely imminent threats,” Romero wrote in his letter. “Any such program is far more sweeping than the law allows and raises grave constitutional and human rights concerns.”

Romero argued that the alleged program could set a dangerous precedent for other nations, which could result in foreign governments killing US citizens on home soil.

The program you have reportedly endorsed is not simply illegal but also unwise, because how our country responds to the threat of terrorism will in large measure determine the rules that govern every nation’s conduct in similar contexts. If the United States claims the authority to use lethal force against suspected enemies of the U.S. anywhere in the world – using unmanned drones or other means – then other countries will regard that conduct as justified. The prospect of foreign governments hunting and killing their enemies within our borders or those of our allies is abhorrent.

The ACLU is not alone in attacking the program as unlawful. Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley said in February that the program raises serious questions.

“This is something that President Bush developed,” Turley explained. “We actually saw the Bush administration kill an American citizen named Kamal Derwish in 2002 with a Predator strike. … The Obama administration, once again, seems to be morphing into the Bush administration.”

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