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Can drone strikes target US citizens? Critics say rules are vague.

Criticism of the leaked Justice Department document – which allows for drone strikes against top level terrorists who are US citizens – is piling up from both the right and left, with critics charging that its language is too permissive.

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Waiting to attack until a terrorist act is actually about to occur would be waiting too long, according to the memo. The US might not have time to defend itself, since top terrorists may make themselves scarce in the days and weeks before an attack is supposed to occur.

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“The United States is likely to have only a limited window of opportunity within which to defend Americans in a manner that has both a high likelihood of success and sufficiently reduces the probabilities of civilian casualties,” reads the memo.

As for mounting an attempt to capture the person in question, that’s deemed “infeasible” if it might result in harm to US or allied forces.

The memo sparked a rare moment of bipartisanship in US political discourse, as some on both sides of the aisle reacted the same way to its provisions: with alarm.

At the right-leaning blog Hot Air, for instance, Ed Morrissey writes that “this memo ... basically gives the government carte blanche to target Americans in whatever it considers to be the battlefield for almost any kind of ‘threat’ it imagines.”

Other conservatives noted that the memo could well have been drawn up by the administration of George W. Bush.

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union declared the paper a “disturbing document.”

“It summarizes in cold legal terms a stunning overreach of executive authority – the claimed power to declare Americans a threat and kill them far from a recognized battlefield and without any judicial involvement before or after the fact,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, in a statement.

The US use of armed drones as the sharp point of its war against Al Qaeda was already sure to come up Thursday when John Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor, sits before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

White House officials have described Brennan as a restraint on the drone program, and said he’s eager to get the CIA out of the drone business by transferring it to the US military. They defend the use of drones as a responsible and limited effort that reduces both US casualties and collateral damage, while inflicting notable damage on America’s adversaries.

But the scope of US targeted killings – some 3,500 over the years, in an estimated 420 strikes, according to the Council on Foreign Relations – is so large that for some members of Congress simply shifting responsibility for the program may not be enough. 

“We’ve shifted from major boots on the ground to an entirely secret operation in which not even the American people understand the costs or strategic benefit to what is being carried out in their name,” said Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict during a CFR media conference call on Feb. 4.


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