For years the Obama administration has dodged the question whether or not they consider it legal to target US citizens on US soil. A Department of Justice White Paper on targeting US citizens did not suggest any geographical limits for targeting citizens. When questioned by Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky Attorney General Eric Holder finally clarified the issue by giving the following answer:
“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.”
Holder added that such a scenario was “entirely hypothetical” and that it would only happen in extreme circumstances. Although Holder indicated that there is no intention on part of the administration of doing so, he also refused to definitively rule out the possibility of domestic drone strikes.
Cause of concern is not so much the possibility that the Obama administration may use drone strikes with a similar frequency in the US as it does overseas, which would be in any case very unlikely, but rather the fact that the legal views of the Obama administration permanently erodes the Constitutional right of US citizens to have a fair trial before the government can kill them in situations that are not clearly war or law enforcement. Once the government establishes the authority to conduct targeted killings on its soil with no significant oversight from outside the executive branch, there is a massive danger of abuse. Future administrations may use the authority to kill citizens for targeting inconvenient journalists, political activists, dissidents, and whistleblowers.
The DoJ White Paper did not suggest that the President would have to be transparent to the public with respect to targeting US citizens. A Congressional committee may be created for reviewing ‘kill lists’, but this is not the same as public disclosures. The Obama administration has been extremely secretive with respect to the targeted killings they conducted overseas and it would be surprising if they were any less secretive with respect to targeted killings on US soil. The use of lethal military force on US soil as referred to by Eric Holder does not necessarily mean ‘Predator-strikes’ with missiles strong enough to cause widespread destruction within 20 meters of their impact. If a drone strike was to happen on US soil it would be far more likely that the US military would employ mini- or micro-drones like ‘Switchblade’, which attacks targets over five kilometers with very high precision and with minimal collateral damage. Such kinds of drone strikes are very difficult for the public to observe and they are therefore potentially deniable.
The US military, law enforcement agencies and other government agencies are planning to massively expand their uses of domestic drones, most of which will be micro-drones smaller than 1 meter in length. At least two US law enforcement agencies already stated their intention to arm these drones, which may fire taser rounds or even shotgun rounds on criminal suspects and terror suspects. Even non-lethal weapons sometimes cause death. From this perspective, it is almost a given that in the long run there will be ‘drone strikes’ on US citizens on US soil, even if the intention would be probably most of the time to incapacitate rather than kill. Nevertheless, it is equally sure that lives will be lost to armed drones in the US, intended or not.