U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has defended the targeted killing of U.S. nationals living outside the United States who have taken up arms against the United States.
Holder said, "some have called such operations 'assassinations'" and continued: "They are not. Assassinations are unlawful killings."
Speaking at Northwestern University law school in Chicago, Holder said the decision to kill a U.S. citizen living outside U.S. territory "is among the gravest that government leaders can face."
Holder added, "when such individuals take up arms against this country and join Al-Qaeda in plotting attacks designed to kill their fellow Americans, there may be only one realistic and appropriate response."
The debate has gained momentum with killings like that of Al-Qaeda-linked radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in September and has become a test case for the legality of targeted killings abroad.
The American Civil Liberties Unions filed a lawsuit in February seeking the release of documents on U.S. drone strikes such as the one that killed Awlaki.
President Barack Obama's administration has refused to release the Justice Department's legal opinion on Awlaki's killing under the Freedom of Information Act and is in court fighting efforts to have it released.
Holder, while never connecting the U.S. administration to the killing, said Awlaki was a terrorist leader who was plotting to kill Americans. Holder said, "the unfortunate reality is that our nation will likely continue to face terrorist threats that at times originate with our own citizens."
Holder said there was a three-part test to determine when a targeted killing of a U.S. national is legal. He said such a citizen must pose an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the killing would be consistent with the laws of war.
"Our legal authority is not limited to the battlefield in Afghanistan," Holder said. "We are at war with a stateless enemy, prone to shifting operations from country to country."
He added that "our government has a responsibility and a right to protect this nation and its people from such threats."
Awlaki's father sued to try to stop the killing of his son, arguing his son should be given the constitutional right to due process of law. A U.S. district judge refused to intervene, saying such decisions are military decisions which courts do not have the right to review. Holder referred to that decision in his speech, saying "the constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process."
With AP and AFP reporting