Reason to target


A leaked U.S. Justice Department memo offers a disturbing expression of the Obama Administration’s legal rationale for killing — without a trial — U.S. citizens and others in defense of this country against terrorists.

News media and civil-liberties groups have sought to know the argument President Obama and other U.S. officials used to justify the 2011 killing in Yemen of three American citizens. Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahmen al-Awlaki, and Samir Khan were killed by missiles fired from unmanned aerial vehicles called drones.

The unsigned, undated Justice Department white paper was made public this week by NBC News. It says a U.S. citizen who cannot be captured may be killed legally if “an informed, high-level official” of the government decides that the target is an al-Qaeda figure who could be the source of “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.”

The document says that such a death sentence can be carried out even if no intelligence exists to indicate an active plot against the United States. Until now, President Obama has been understood to make decisions about the Central Intelligence Agency’s drone-kill list. In principle, only the president can authorize assassinations.

But would the CIA director also qualify as an “informed, high-level official” under the Justice Department’s definition? Would this category of decision-maker also include other, lower-ranking government employees?

The American Civil Liberties Union calls the rationale “a stunning overreach of executive authority.” The practice appears sharply out of line with the Constitution’s guarantees of due process. It could leave Mr. Obama and other senior administration officials open to charges in U.S. courts of murder or in international tribunals of war crimes.

Protecting the security of the United States is vital, but not at the expense of the very rights that the government should be safeguarding.