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La Repubblica, Italy

Brennan-Obama Doctrine: License
to Kill for National Security


By Federico Rampini

Translated By Juliana DiBona

6 February 2013

Edited by Natalie Clager


Italy - La Repubblica - Original Article (Italian)

The president of the United States has a license to kill. This is true even if the targets of his military attacks (or his drones) have American passports. All that matters is that they pose an “imminent threat” against America. This is the “Obama Doctrine,” revealed in a memorandum from the Department of Justice.

John Brennan had decisive influence on the “Obama Doctrine.” He was already advising Obama on national security and is now nominated to direct the CIA. Since Senate hearings to confirm Brennan have begun, this memorandum captures one’s attention. It’s an important and highly controversial document, born to legitimize actions that have already taken place. This includes one event in particular: a drone attack in September 2011 that killed two important bosses of the local al-Qaida network in Yemen. These two, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, were U.S. citizens.

This attack generated alarm in different civil rights organizations, beginning with the American Civil Liberties Union. How could the president “execute” an American citizen without allowing him the right to a trial? Do actions such as this drone attack represent a new death penalty administered by the Department of Justice, which reports to the executive branch? It is to these objections that the memorandum gives a wide and detailed response, although it is far from adequate to settle the controversy.

Attorney General Eric Holder had already said that "our government has the clear authority to defend the United States with lethal force [if] a United States citizen terrorist... presents an imminent threat of violent attack." This would be equivalent to a situation in which a policeman sees an aggressive person point a gun against other defenseless citizens: The need to save innocent victims can justify killing. But the new memorandum allows for a broad interpretation of “imminent threat.” The document theorizes that "the threat posed by al-Qaida and its associated forces demands a broader concept of imminence in judging when a person continually planning terror attacks presents an imminent threat.” Postponing action against these people, explains the Obama doctrine, would expose the Unite States to an “unacceptable risk,” because al-Qaida is always actively preparing for new attacks and the U.S. government may not be aware of specific terrorist plots while they are developing.

The only limits the Obama doctrine seems to place on the license to kill are as follows: If it is impractical to capture the terrorist then there’s license, and the United States respects the rules of war; two far less important prerequisites regarding the rights of American citizens. Not surprisingly, with the dissemination of the memorandum, the ACLU responded by calling the document "profoundly disturbing." In a statement the civil rights association declared: "It's hard to believe that it was produced in a democracy built on a system of checks and balances."

The controversy makes explicit reference to the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution: Derived from the English law on habeas corpus, the Fourth Amendment protects from “unreasonable” searches or other forms of violation of individual liberty that are not authorized by a court warrant. In the memorandum, the Department of Justice excludes that it violated the Fourth Amendment, if “a United States citizen... is a senior operational leader of al-Qaida or associated forces, and... the U.S. government has determined... that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States."



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