Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Obama Discusses Targeted Killing of U.S. Citizens During Google+ Hangout

by Micah Zenko
February 15, 2013

U.S. president Barack Obama crosses the south lawn of the White House on February 13, 2013 (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. president Barack Obama crosses the south lawn of the White House on February 13, 2013 (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters).


Last March, in a House hearing, Representative  Tom Graves asked FBI director Robert Mueller: “Does the federal government have the ability to kill a U.S. citizen on United States soil, or just overseas?” Mueller responded, “I am going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice.” In light of the leaked Department of Justice white paper that provided some of the Obama administration’s legal rationale for the targeted killing of U.S. citizens, the question has been raised again. In an effort to find an answer, Senator Rand Paul placed a hold on John Brennan’s nomination to become the director of central intelligence, declaring in a statement yesterday: “I have placed a hold on the nomination of John Brennan to serve as director of the CIA until he answers the question of whether or not the President can kill American citizens through the drone strike program on U.S. soil.”

Early last evening, President Obama participated in a Google+ Fireside Hangout. At the 37:27 mark of the event, Obama had the exchange that appears below. Judge for yourself if it answers this outstanding question:

Question: “A lot of people are very concerned that your administration now believes that it is legal to have drone strikes against American citizens. And whether or not that is specifically allowed versus citizens within the United States. And if that is not true what will you do to create a legal framework to make American citizens within the United States believe know that drone strikes cannot be used against American citizens?”

Obama: “First of all, I think, there’s never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil. And, you know, we respect and have a whole bunch of safeguards in terms of how we conduct counterterrorism operations outside the United States. The rules outside the United States are going to be different then the rules inside the United States. In part because our capacity to, for example, to capture a terrorist inside the United States are very different then in the foothills or mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan.”

“But what I think is absolutely true is that it is not sufficient for citizens to just take my word for it that we are doing the right thing.  I am the head of the executive branch. And what we’ve done so far is to try to work with Congress on oversight issues. But part of what I am going to have to work with Congress on is to make sure that whatever it is we’re providing Congress, that we have mechanisms to also make sure that the public understands what’s going on, what the constraints are, what the legal parameters are. And that is something that I take very seriously. I am not someone who believes that the president has the authority to do whatever he wants, or whatever she wants, whenever they want, just under the guise of counterterrorism. There have to be legal checks and balances on it.”

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