Yes, the president can kill Americans on U.S. soil

In a letter to Rand Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder affirms, again, the expansive powers of the chief executive

Topics: John Brennan, CIA, Eric Holder, Attorney General, Kill Lists, Drones, Targeted killing, Rand Paul,

Just so we’re all clear — and mainly  just so Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., will stand down on his threat to block John Brennan’s confirmation — Attorney General Eric Holder has confirmed in writing that the president can kill U.S. citizens in a drone strike on U.S. soil, in “an extraordinary circumstance.”

In a Google+ Hangout last month, President Obama refused to answer whether or not he had the authority to use lethal force on Americans inside the borders. And John Brennan has said that the CIA does not “have any authority” to carry out lethal strikes on U.S. soil. But Paul had threatened to block Brennan’s nomination “until he answers the question of whether or not the President can kill American citizens through the drone strike program on U.S. soil.”

Holder thus wrote to the senator with a more expansive answer Tuesday (h/t Mother Jones):

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As members of this administration have previously indicated, the US government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so. As a policy matter moreover, we reject the use of military force where well-established law enforcement authorities in this country provide the best means for incapacitating a terrorist threat. We have a long history of using the criminal justice system to incapacitate individuals located in our country who pose a threat to the United States and its interests abroad. Hundreds of individuals have been arrested and convicted of terrorism-related offenses in our federal courts.

The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no president will ever have to confront. It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States. For example, the president could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstances like a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001.

So let’s quickly parse out this logic: It is inscribed within our current legal structures that the president can hypothetically use lethal force on U.S. soil. But this hypothetical has already been deemed acceptable under certain circumstances — so it’s not “entirely hypothetical,” because it’s actually already legally permitted according to the attorney general. All that is up for grabs is what counts as “catastrophic” circumstances — something, of course, that executive powers decide.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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