Department of Justice White Paper on Targeted Killings of Americans


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Could the U.S. government order drone strikes within American borders? Not according to International Law. Image by Technical Sergeant Sabrina Johnson

Assassination, War, and International Law

International law provides for attacks in foreign countries under circumstances that render such attacks not a violation of that country’s sovereignty or neutrality. The United States can only go into countries such as Yemen and Pakistan at the invitation of their governments. For example, it is believed by some that Pakistan is allowing drone strikes within its borders, but the government cannot acknowledge this fact publicly.

More importantly, international law allows the United States to target a person within a foreign country only if that country is unable or unwilling to deal with the threat posed to the United States by that person.

This requirement alone puts an end to speculation that the U.S. could legally target Americans within the United States.

If a person poses an imminent threat against the U.S from within the country, it is difficult to argue the United States itself is unable or unwilling to deal with that threat by making an arrest.  Drone attacks against terrorists, American or otherwise, can only be justified by this White Paper in countries that are unable or unwilling to deal with the alleged suspect and the terrorist threat imposed.

Despite fanciful scenarios of American citizens being lawfully killed by administration strikes within the country, there is no way this type of action could be justified under international law, or the justifications set forth in the White Paper.

Justification for Drone Attacks on American Citizens?

It is extremely difficult to draw exact conclusions from this White Paper, as it fails to define very important aspects of its opinion. For example, the paper doesn’t define exactly what makes a threat “imminent.” Nor is it clear exactly which officials have the ability to determine if an American is a high ranking member of Al Qaeda or an affiliated group. Similarly, the report does not disclose which administration officials have to power to determine the feasibility of capturing the person alive rather than targeting that American for death.

Although International Law does not allow for the killing of Americans on American soil, the U.S. policy regarding its citizens in other nations is murky. Without clearer information, it is difficult to determine when and how the U.S. government determines it has become infeasible to attempt to capture a person rather than send in the drones.


MSNBC. Department of Justice White Paper . (2013). Accessed February 7, 2013.

NBC News. EXCLUSIVE: Justice Department memo reveals legal case for drone strikes on Americans. (2013). Accessed February 7, 2013.

Bill Moyers. Breaking Down the DOJ Drone Memo. (2013). Accessed February 7, 2013.

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