Holder: U.S. can kill citizen terrorists abroad

Attorney General Eric Holder speaks at the Northwestern University law school on March 5, 2012 in Chicago. Holder said Monday that the decision to kill a U.S. citizen living abroad who poses a terrorist threat "is among the gravest that government leaders can face," but justified lethal action as legal and sometimes necessary in the war on terror. AP Photo/Brian Kersey

(CBS/AP) Attorney General Eric Holder unveiled the Obama administration's legal justification for killing Americans outside the United States Monday, saying "lethal force" can be used against U.S. citizens who present "an imminent threat of violent attack."

The attorney general's comments on Monday are breaking the administration's silence on the legal justifications for its decision to kill American-born al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki. Holder delivered the speech at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago.

Anwar al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico and once preached at an Islamic center in Falls Church, Va. Al-Awlaki was killed in September by a joint CIA-U.S. military drone strike on a convoy in Yemen.

"Given the nature of how terrorists act and where they tend to hide, it may not always be feasible to capture a United States citizen terrorist who presents an imminent threat of violent attack," Holder says in the prepared text. "In that case, our government has the clear authority to defend the United States with lethal force."

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The administration has provided some details about what al-Awlaki was doing that made him so dangerous to the United States. In that vein, the Justice Department disclosed that a Nigerian man who tried to blow up an international flight on Christmas 2009 told FBI agents that his mission was approved after a three-day visit with al-Awlaki.

The man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was sentenced last month to life in prison after admitting he attempted to blow up the plane with a bomb in his underwear as the plane approached Detroit.

In his speech, Holder says three requirements must be met before targeting a citizen on foreign soil: an imminent threat of attack must be posed against the United States, capture isn't feasible and the operation must meet certain principles justifying the use of force. He denies that the administration must seek permission from a federal court before conducting an operation against a U.S. citizen.

"Due process and judicial process are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security," says Holder. "The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process."

Holder also says that evaluating whether to use lethal force would consider how much time the government has to act, how much harm could be caused by not acting and the chance of preventing future attacks against the United States.

"The Constitution does not require the president to delay action until some theoretical end-stage of planning when the precise time, place and manner of an attack become clear," says Holder. "Such a requirement would create an unacceptably high risk that our efforts would fail and that Americans would be killed."

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