Speaking at Northwestern’s Chicago campus Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder declared that the government may lawfully kill United States citizens abroad if they are associated with Al-Qaeda, planning to attack the United States and impossible to capture.
“We are a nation at war,” Holder said. “We face a nimble and determined enemy that cannot be underestimated.”
Holder spoke in Thorne Auditorium, nearly filled to its 700-person capacity. His speech was anticipated as a major address on the constitutionality of US foreign policy, and stories about it quickly appeared on the homepages of the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Wired.com.
Although Holder only briefly mentioned him, the speech was anticipated to legally justify the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and radical Muslim cleric who was killed by drone strike in Yemen last year. According to the New York Times, the speech was planned last fall, soon after al-Awlaki’s Sept. 30 killing.
Holder said that targeted killings of American citizens were legal, because, while the Constitution may guarantee due process, due process is not “one and the same” with judicial process, especially in issues of national security. In all actions, he said, the United States must be “grounded in the bedrock of the Constitution.”
Holder highlighted the Obama administration’s counterterrorism successes, including the killing of Osama bin Laden last May. He also admonished critics who oppose trying terrorism subjects in civilian courts. No suspect has escaped custody or made a retaliatory attack, Holder said.
“These are facts, not opinions,” he said. “Those who claim that our federal courts are incapable of handling terrorism cases are not registering a dissenting opinion—they are simply wrong.”
Al Cubbage, Vice-President for University Relations at Northwestern, said Holder’s speech was well-laid out and informative. “This is a major policy issuse for the U.S. government. It was good to hear it directly from the Attorney General.”
Law student Eric Westlund was among those in the audience. Westlund, 25, said he came to hear how partisan the speech would be after hearing “buzz in the news” about Holder’s visit.
“He said some emphatic things,” he said. “His aim was clearly to rebuff critics and boost his administration.”
Wired’s national security reporter Spencer Ackerman noted afterward that “Holder’s speech signaled that there are other Americans whom the government is considering killing like it killed Awlaki.” Charlie Savage, reporting for the New York Times, wrote that “the speech contained no footnotes or specific legal citations” justifying the killing. He tweeted later that “Holder's speech sketched bits of govt reasoning re targeted killing of citizens. We already knew more & learned nothing” [sic].