NewsNation | February 05, 2013
>>> developing news within the past hour, the white house reacting to a secret 16-page justice department memo exclusively obtained by nbc news. in it, obama administration lawyers argue the government can kill americans believed to be top taliban leaders posing, quote, an imminent threat of attack against the united states .
>> we have acknowledged the united states that sometimes we use remotely piloted aircraft to conduct targeted strikes against specific al qaeda terrorists to prevent attacks on the united states and to save american lives. we conduct those strikes because they're necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats, to stop plots, prevent future attacks and save american lives. the strikes are legal, ethical an wise.
>> but as expected, the memo coming under fire from civil rights activists because of how broadly imminent threat is defined. quote, the condition that an operational leader present an imminent threat of violent attack against the united states does not require the united states to have clear evidence that a specific attack on u.s. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future. now, the memo also has new details on legal case behind more drone strikes against al qaeda suspects. such as a strike happened in yemen in september 2011 killing alleged al qaeda operatives, both american citizens not indicted or charged with crimes. all of this could come to a head on thursday for john brennan . eight democratic and three republican senators have written to president obama asking for the legal opinions authorizing the killing of americans . joining me now, national investigative correspondent michael isacoff. i saw your report and the reaction to the report. is it really surprising at this point?
>> well, i think it's not that surprising, mainly because the administration has been so resistant to releasing any of the memos that explain its legal reasoning behind these drone strikes and in particular the drone strikes targeting american citizens. members of congress have asked to see copies. "the new york times" went to court and sued under the freedom of information act to obtain copies. and the administration has completely shut those requests down saying these memos are classified. if they exist and they're not going to discuss or release anything. so that has sort of built pressure up for the administration to show its cards. these are very consequential policies. we are here talking about american citizens who have constitutional rights to life and liberty which can't be deprived without due process of law under the constitution so if they're going to be targeted, with drone strikes, who's making those decisions and what are the criteria that are being used?
>> all right. michael , thank you very much. joining me to talk about the questions posed by michael , jameel jeff ford and director of aclu national security project. thank you for joining us.
>> thank you for the invitation.
>> i would like to play attorney general holder just said today in response to the white paper . let's play it, please.
>> one of the things i want to make sure everybody understands is our primary concern is to keep the american people safe. but to do so in a way that's consistent with our laws and consistent with our values. we are -- we have as a basis for action that we take a congressional statute that allows us to operate against al qaeda and associated entitentities, not only in pakistan or not only in afghanistan but other parts of the world. we say that we only take these kinds of actions when there's an imminent threat , when capture is not feasible and when we are confident that we're doing so in a way that's consistent with federal and international law .
>> does that answer or satisfy your concerns?
>> no. i think that this is a memo that sets out a very broad authority. there are some limit that is are stated in the memo. for example, the administration says that they will carry out these strikes only against people who pose imminent threat but imminence is so broadly defined. and true of the other limitations. the limitations aren't really limitations at all. the other, you know, other issue with the limitations is that the administration says that they're not enforceable by any court so at the end of the day it is executive branch officials making the decision about whether any particular person presents a threat and nobody is looking over their shoulder.
>> i want to read senator diane dpin stei feinstein, her statement this morning says in part as president obama said at time of his death, alaki was the operations leader of aqap. he directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on christmas day 2009 and responsible for attempts to blow up cargo planes in 2010 . recruiting others to kill americans until the time of his death in yemen. essentially people read in to that this is a statement that the bad guys were planning something. so this is what needs to happen. you hear a lot of people say, how can you defend these people who were plotting against americans .
>> right. so let's just assume that everything that that statement says about al alawaki is true? this is going to be true of others killed by drone strikes. they have not been under him. one was khan that grew up here in new york. another was a 16-year-old kid. nobody has ever alleged he did anything wrong. you have to make sure that you have checks and balances in place because some of the people that the government target may not be the worse guys in the world and make sure that the next administration has checks on it and the administration after that. even if you trust this administration with the power.
>> especially urgent with the number of drone strikes since 2002 . 4,700 killed in the use of drones. we did the segment with the "time" magazine writer. the cover was a drone nation and talking about the use internationally there.
>> not only actual battlefields but afghanistan. there's no geographic limit set out in the memo that was released yesterday that mike isikoff got hold of. you're not talking about battlefield. you're talking about far removed from actual battlefields and you need to make sure that there are limits in place and for the executive branch to say just trust us is not enough.
>> what do you need to hear from nominee cia nominee john brennan then on the hearing thursday?
>> i think wuone thing the administration should do is release the legal memos before that hearing because this briefing paper is a summary of the legal memos, not the legal memos themselves. that should inform the debate about john brennan 's nomination and then asked about the drone program, about his role in it, what he thinks of the checks and balances in place.
>> thank you very much for joining us. i hope we can talk with you the day of the hearing, as well. thank you.
>> thank you.