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The President Has Constitutional Power To Target And Kill U.S. Citizens Abroad

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Live Transcript
  • The Imminence Requirement for a Presidential Order to Kill

    Clip: Harvard Law professors Alan Dershowitz and Noah Feldman disagree over what sort of imminent danger is necessary to justify an order from the President to kill an enemy citizen on foreign territory.

  • Is the President's Power to Kill Enemies Limited?

    Clip: Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, argues that presidential orders to kill enemy citizens abroad go beyond the law. Michael Lewis claims that Pakistan cannot police some regions of the country so the U.S has to.

Debate Details

With the drone strike on accused terrorist and New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, President Obama has tested the limits of the executive branch’s powers. Does the president have constitutional authority under the due process clause to kill U.S. citizens abroad, or is it a violation of this clause to unilaterally decide to target and kill Americans?

The Debaters

For the motion

Alan Dershowitz

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Alan M. Dershowitz, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, has been called “the nation’s most peripatetic civil liberties... Read More

Michael Lewis

Professor of Law, Ohio Northern University School of Law

Michael Lewis has written extensively on various aspects of the laws of war and the conflict between the U.S. and al Qaeda and has been cited by the... Read More

Against the motion

Noah Feldman

Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

Noah Feldman is the Bemis Professor of Law at Harvard University and senior fellow of the Society of Fellows. He is author several books including... Read More

Hina Shamsi

Director of the ACLU National Security Project

Hina Shamsi is director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, which is dedicated to ensuring that U.S. counterterrorism... Read More

Where Do You Stand?

For The Motion
  • The U.S. can use lethal force against a citizen abroad if he/she is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or an associated force when they pose an imminent threat, capture is infeasible, and it is conducted in a manner consistent with law of war principles.
  • The president's authority to respond to this threat arises from Congressional authorization, AUMF, and the inherent right of national self-defense. The executive branch's weighing of evidence meets the due process requirement. Its decision does not require judicial approval.
  • The U.S. is engaged in non-international armed conflict with al Qaeda and its associates, a fight that is not limited in geographical scope.
Against The Motion
  • The public does not know what the selection process is, or who signs off on it. Due process requires that government discloses the criteria by which U.S. citizens could be put to death.
  • Giving the president unchecked authority will lead to abuse. There must be a role for the court in this process, even if it occurs after the fact.
  • Despite what the administration claims, the world is not a battlefield, and the president does not have the authority to kill anyone he wants wherever he wants. "Imminence" is one of the standards used to determine whether a targeted killing is lawful, but the administration has redefined it to go beyond how it is used in domestic and international law.

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The Research

The Research

Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa'ida or an Associated Force

Department of Justice White Paper
November 8, 2011

This white paper sets forth a legal framework for considering the circumstances in which the U.S. government could use lethal force in a foreign country outside the area of active hostilities against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force of al-Qa’ida.

An Executive Power to Kill?

David Cole
March 6, 2012

The Constitution requires the government to obtain a judicial warrant based on probable cause before it can search your backpack or attach a GPS tracking device to your car, but not, according to Attorney General Holder, before it kills you.

In Defense of the Administration on Targeted Killing of Americans

Benjamin Wittes
February 27, 2013

There is nothing extraordinary about the administration’s position, which actually claims very little in the way of power to target Americans.

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