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For the first time, the U.S. government has admitted to killing four American citizens in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

The Obama administration, which until now had refused to comment on whether the U.S. had killed American citizens abroad, formally acknowledged this fact in a letterfrom Attorney General Eric Holder to Congressional leaders obtained by The New York Times.

In the letter, Holder admits that the U.S. purposefully targeted and killed Anwar al-Awlaki, justifying the killing by arguing that al-Awlaki posed an "imminent" threat of violent attacks against the United States. It is this word – imminent – upon which Holder's legal justification hinges. It is this word upon which the Justice Department's claim that the killing of al-Awlaki was legal and constitutionally sound rests.

However, as The New York Times notes, killing a citizen who may be planning future attacks, and categorizing such planning as posing an "imminent" threat, is at the very least an elastic interpretation of the legal allowance to kill an American citizen without due process (on a battlefield).

The problem is this: with international terrorism, can you designate the entire world as a battlefield? Is a U.S. citizen serving in the German army during World War II, and posting a literal, imminent threat to U.S. troops, the same as a terrorist accused (but not proven) to be planning terror attacks?

Those who say no view such targeted killings of American citizens as patently unconstitutional – particularly in view of the 1957 Supreme Court decision Reid vs. Covert, which ruled that Americans maintain their constitutional rights anywhere in the world.

While al-Awlaki was intentionally killed without due process, the three other Americans apparently were not intentionally targeted:

The letter also said that the United States had killed three other Americans: Samir Khan, who was killed in the same strike; Mr. Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was also killed in Yemen; and Jude Mohammed, who was killed in a strike in Pakistan.

“These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States,” Mr. Holder wrote

Tomorrow, President Obama is set to give a major speech on national security to the nation. It will be telling whether or not these revelations and admittances – that the U.S. has intentionally targeted American citizens abroad – will be addressed.

If not, it will signal that the U.S. government, while comfortable with the legal rationale for such killings, is not comfortable with how the public will view them.


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