March 05, 2012

Wyden Says Attorney General’s Speech at Northwestern University Leaves Questions Unanswered

Washington, D.C.U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a senior member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, issued the below statement regarding Attorney General Holder’s speech to Northwestern University this afternoon addressing the president’s counterterrorism authorities and the administration’s understanding of its power to use lethal force against U.S. citizens.  Wyden has been asking to see the Administration’s secret legal opinions on this topic for more than a year and last month wrote a letter to the Attorney General expressing concern that the Administration was relying on “secret law” in this area:

“I agree with many of the things Attorney General Holder said this afternoon.  For example, I strongly agree that prosecutions in federal courts can be a smart, effective way to deal with terrorists and that law enforcement agencies have a valuable role to play in counterterrorism efforts.  The military shouldn’t have to handle terrorists alone.  

“I also agree with many of the points Attorney General Holder made regarding the use of force against terrorist groups.  Just as President Lincoln had the authority to use military force against Confederate forces during the Civil War, if American citizens choose to join al-Qa’ida and take up arms against the United States, there can undoubtedly be some circumstances under which the President has the authority to use lethal force against those Americans.

“But while I agree that the President should have the authority to use force to keep Americans safe, I think everyone agrees there should be limits to the President’s power to order the death of U.S. citizens.    The Bill of Rights clearly states that “No person shall be….deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”  Attorney General Holder’s speech, however, left many questions about the limits of the President’s power unanswered.

“For example, the government should explain exactly how much evidence the President needs in order to decide that a particular American is part of a terrorist group.  It is also unclear to me whether individual Americans must be given the opportunity to surrender before lethal force is used against them.  And I’m particularly concerned that the geographic boundaries of this authority have not been clearly laid out.  Based on what I’ve heard so far, I can’t tell whether or not the Justice Department’s legal arguments would allow the President to order intelligence agencies to kill an American inside the United States.

“These questions should not be a matter of ‘secret law,’ settled behind closed doors by a small number of government lawyers – every American has a right to understand when their government believes it is allowed to kill them.

“I have been asking to see the secret legal opinions that outline the executive branch’s understanding of the President’s authority to knowingly kill American citizens for over a year now.  And despite what the Attorney General said about keeping Congress informed, significant portions of the secret legal analysis on this topic continue to be withheld today.

“I plan to keep pressing the Justice Department and the Obama Administration to be more forthcoming on this issue.  Attorney General Holder’s speech today is a welcome step in the right direction, but further steps need to be taken, and they need to be taken soon.”