Yes, U.S. drones can be used to strike Americans on U.S. soil (updated 11/3/13)

After Senator Rand Paul warned he would filibuster the nomination of John Brennan to CIA director “until he answers the question of whether or not the president can kill American citizens through the drone strike program on US soil”, Attorney General Eric Holder replied that yes – in an “extraordinary circumstance” – the Executive reserved the write to conduct a targeted killing inside the U.S Homeland.

In response, Paul stated that “The US Attorney General’s refusal to rule out the possibility of drone strikes on American citizens and on American soil is more than frightening,” adding “It is an affront the constitutional due process rights of all Americans.” While Holder’s response is “hypothetical” (for now), the slippage and wiggle room should concern those who believe in a strict line between law enforcement and martial law (even if the division is increasingly muddy).

The admission is another example of the slow, incremental changes that drones are facilitating. While it’s easy to dismiss the technology as subservient to the overarching  direction of human beings – it is important to see the Predators and Reapers as political actors no less than their supposed human masters. We dwell with machines – never above them and never in spite of them.

Holders response in full:

As members of this administration have previously indicated, the US government has not carried out drone strikes in the United States and has no intention of doing so. As a policy matter moreover, we reject the use of military force where well-established law enforcement authorities in this country provide the best means for incapacitating a terrorist threat. We have a long history of using the criminal justice system to incapacitate individuals located in our country who pose a threat to the United States and its interests abroad. Hundreds of individuals have been arrested and convicted of terrorism-related offenses in our federal courts.

The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no president will ever have to confront. It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States. For example, the president could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstances like a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001.

Full story on Mother Jones

UPDATE:

After a 13-hour filibuster from Senator Rand Paul, Eric Holder clarified the administration’s legal position:

“It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer to that question is no.”

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