White House will release memo that justifies using drones to kill U.S. citizens

After receiving a court order in April to reveal a secret memo that justifies drone strikes to kill U.S. citizens who live overseas, the Obama administration has announced that it will not appeal the order and will comply with the request. The announcement came as the Senate votes on President Obama’s nomination of David Barron—the author of the memo—to the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

The memo will attempt to justify the 2011 death of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in a drone strike in Yemen. The memo will also be subject to redaction, though, as one anonymous official explained, "while the legal analysis that justifies the use of drones will be disclosed, some facts will still be excluded from the document." Because the redactions need court approval, it could still be a while before the memo is actually released.

In our September 2013 issue, we interviewed law professor David Cole on the subject of drones. When asked if we need to treat American citizens overseas differently than we do other people overseas, he said: “There is something about the government, which is our representative, being able to kill its own citizens in a secret way that is deeply corrosive of a democracy. I don’t think that, in a war, we are required to acknowledge the killing of every enemy fighter that we have killed. There may be some moral and diplomatic reasons for doing so, where we can identify who the victims are. What’s the harm? But when it’s your own citizen, there is a democracy problem. You can’t have democratic accountability if you’re not willing to acknowledge what has happened.”

We saw the first step toward accountability when the administration last year finally acknowledged the drone strike that killed al-Awlaki. There may be political motivation at play here, but we should eventually still be able to examine the legal justification for killing citizens abroad, and that’s a step in the direction of transparency.

About the author

Elizabeth Lefebvre

Elizabeth Lefebvre is a writer living in Chicago.