U.S. Targeted Assassinations Violate Citizen’s Right to Life and Due Process, Undercut International Law

In an extraordinary statement, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair reportedly told a congressional committee that U.S. intelligence agencies may use lethal force against U.S. citizens abroad without judicial process. The Washington Post reports:

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair acknowledged Wednesday that government agencies may kill U.S. citizens abroad who are involved in terrorist activities if they are “taking action that threatens Americans.”

Blair told members of the House intelligence committee that he was speaking publicly about the issue to reassure Americans that intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense “follow a set of defined policy and legal procedures that are very carefully observed” in the use of lethal force against U.S. citizens.

In response to questions from Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the panel’s ranking Republican, Blair said: “We take direct action against terrorists in the intelligence community. If that direct action, we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.”

The director of national intelligence said the factors that “primarily” weigh on the decision to target an American include “whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans.”

Ellen Nakashima, “Intelligence chief acknowledges U.S. may target Americans involved in terrorism,” Washington Post, February 4, 2010.

Does anyone in Washington remember the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United Sates of America, which provides:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Does anyone in Washington remember the Right to Life protected by Article 6 of the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and many other international human rights treaties? Under Article 4 of the Covenant, the right to life may not be suspended even “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation.”

The European Convention on Human Rights contains similar protections in Articles 2 and 6, which must be of great concern to our NATO allies as these provisions are directly binding on them as part of the constitutional law of every European country.

Under international law, the right to use force in self-defense is limited by Article 2 paragraph 4 and Article 51 of the U.N. Charter to cases of “armed attack”, as that term may be interpreted under the rules of interpretation of international law, which are set forth in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. The contours of these restrictions were very clearly articulated by the World Court in its 1986 decision in Nicaragua vs. the United States.

Blair’s statement is like a lightning flash illuminating the continuation of policies undertaken in the Bush administration that authorize actions completely outside the framework of international law. These actions, if undertaken by others, would lead to targeted assassinations by other states against their opponents and those who “threaten” them or their citizens, anywhere. An opponent from one state of a regime in a second state could be assassinated in a third state–in Dubai, for example. Or London.

The Bush administration had little concern for international law. It is time to fundamentally rethink the policies involving the use of force that emerged from that cauldron of extraordinary unilateral excess, and to develop policies that are viewed as legitimate by other states–under international law.

President Barack Obama should immediately call for a full review by the Department of Justice and the Department of State as to the legality of targeted assassinations of U.S. citizens abroad, and a full review by the lawyers in the State Department of the policy of targeted assassinations generally and their legality under international law.

The Trenchant Observer

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