Eric Holder is expected in a speech Monday to explain the targeting of American-born Anwar al-Awlaki, who worked within al-Qaida's affiliates in Yemen.
Attorney General Eric Holder is expected Monday to provide the most detailed explanation yet of the Obama administration’s secret decision-making leading up to the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen last year in Yemen.
Holder’s speech Monday at Northwestern Law School in Chicago is the result of months of internal Obama administration deliberations over how much can be made public about the decisions leading up to the strike.
The Justice Department wrote a still-classified memo that provided the legal rationale for the targeting of American-born Anwar al-Awlaki that also included intelligence material about his operational role within al-Qaida’s affiliates in Yemen.
Holder is expected to say that the killing of al-Awlaki was legal under the 2001 congressional authorization of the use of military force and that the United States, acting in self-defense, is not limited to traditional battlefields in pursuit of terrorists who present an imminent threat, including U.S. citizens, according to an official briefed on the speech.
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Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico, was the chief of external operations for al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen, which has attempted a number of terrorist attacks on the United States, according to administration officials. He had been placed on “kill lists” compiled by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Al-Awlaki was killed in September in Yemen in a joint CIA-JSOC drone operation.
The operation was carried out after the administration requested and received an opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel saying targeting and killing U.S. citizens overseas was legal under domestic and international law.
Within the administration, there was some reluctance on the part of the intelligence community to engage with the subject at all publicly. But others argued that the killing of an American citizen by the U.S. government was such an extraordinary event that there had to be some public accounting.
Holder’s speech will also outline the Obama administration’s approach to counterterrorism and the rule of law, according to a source familiar with the address. Holder will discuss the broad new waivers that President Obama issued last week that allow U.S. law-enforcement agencies to retain custody of al-Qaida terrorism suspects rather than turn them over to the military.
Holder will also highlight the success of the civilian court system in the prosecutions and convictions of suspected terrorists. One case he is to cite is the “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to bring down a U.S. flight on Christmas Day 2009 by detonating a bomb hidden in his underwear. He was sentenced to life in prison last month.
Abdulmutallab was arrested by federal law-enforcement agents, given his Miranda rights within an hour and processed through the civilian criminal-justice system. Some Republican critics argued that Abdulmutallab should never have been advised of his rights to counsel and that the administration should have considered turning him over to the military to continue his interrogation.
But administration officials said they got the intelligence they needed from him immediately and later he provided further details on al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula. Some of that, including al-Awlaki’s operational role, was revealed at Abdulmutallab’s sentencing.
Prosecutors said Abdulmutallab was acting on the orders of al-Awlaki, which may have been a critical factor in the legal reasoning in the classified Justice memo justifying his killing.
Holder will also discuss the debate over whether terrorist suspects should be tried in federal criminal courts or military commissions. The administration argues that military commissions are appropriate for a small and select group of cases, but that they should have the ability to transfer some suspects at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States for trial. Congress, however, has blocked such prosecutions.