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Hearing of the House Judiciary Committee - "Drones and the War on Terror: When Can the U.S. Target Alleged American Terrorists Overseas?"


Location: Washington, DC

Chairman Goodlatte: I want to welcome everyone to today's hearing on "Drones and the War on Terror: When Can the U.S. Target Alleged American Terrorists Overseas?"

On Feb. 4, 2013, a confidential Justice Department white paper outlining the legal justification for targeted killings of U.S. citizens overseas was leaked to NBC News. The leak of this white paper brought renewed attention to an issue largely ignored during President Obama's tenure -- is the targeted killing of alleged American terrorists appropriate and under what circumstances? The white paper also confirms a palpable shift in War on Terror policy by this President.

In 2007, Barack Obama, the then-junior Senator from Illinois laid out his position on the War on Terror.

"To build a better, freer world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people… This means ending the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law."

The same president who opposes the detention of foreign terrorists, who opposes the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on foreign terrorists, and who attempted to bring foreign terrorists to trial in New York City is now personally approving the killing of Americans. Ironically, the detention facility in Guantanamo remains open and Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his co-conspirators are being tried before a military commission.

Following the release of the white paper, a bipartisan group of Committee members requested the opportunity to review the memos that form the basis for the white paper. Our request was denied. One of President Obama's first acts as President was to release the Bush Justice Department's enhanced interrogation techniques memos to the public. But he now refuses to provide his Justice Department's targeted killing memos not just to the public but even to congressional overseers.

We also invited the Justice Department to testify today. That request was denied too.

According to at least one estimate, drone strikes against suspected al Qaeda terrorists have increased six-fold under the Obama Administration. Anywhere from 2,500 to 4,000 people have been killed by these strikes. What's more, this administration is not just targeting foreign fighters, but American citizens as well. President Obama ordered the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al-Qaeda cleric. In September of last year, U.S. forces killed al-Awlaki and his 16 year old son in a drone strike in Yemen. America now knows the criteria used to nominate an American for targeted killing.

The white paper sets forth a "legal framework" for when the U.S. government can use lethal force against a U.S. citizen who is a "senior operational leader of al Qaeda or an associated force" and is located in a foreign country outside the area of active hostilities. The Justice Department claims that in such a case, lethal force would be lawful where three conditions are met:

An informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States;
Capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible;
The operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with principles of the laws of war.

Today's hearing will examine the Justice Department's white paper and the constitutional issues surrounding the targeted killing of Americans overseas. We have assembled an impressive panel of experts to help the Committee analyze these important issues.

The targeted killing of Americans overseas has ignited a debate about the breadth of a President's Commander-in-Chief authority and the standard that should apply when targeting Americans. Is the white paper a fair reading of the law? Under what circumstances can the President decide to kill an American citizen? Is there any due process of law that must be granted before the Commander-in-Chief can kill an American? Does the Administration's approach comport with the law? Should the President be able to decide unilaterally to kill Americans?

The American people deserve to know and understand the legal basis under which the Obama Administration believes it can kill U.S. citizens, and under what circumstances. Obviously, were the Justice Department memos made available or the Justice Department here to testify today, members of the Committee could have a fuller understanding of the administration's legal rationale. However today's hearing will provide an initial, public debate of the issues.

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