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Federal judge condemns Obama's targeted drone killings of US citizens overseas

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MQ-1 Predator drone -- credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder
MQ-1 Predator drone -- credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder

A judge is fighting back against the Obama Administration's claims that it should be able to bypass the courts system in ordering drone killings of US citizens located outside the country and not in combat zones, whom it deems to be terrorist threats. As the New York Times reports, US District Court Judge Rosemary M. Collyer in Washington, DC, hasn't made any official rulings on the matter of whether such killings of US citizens abroad are legal — yet. But on Friday, she broadly condemned the notion that's been put forth repeatedly by the White House and the Justice Department that neither trials of suspects, nor court oversight of such killings, are required. "Are you saying that a U.S. citizen targeted by the United States in a foreign country has no constitutional rights?... Where is the limit to this?" Collyer asked a Justice Department attorney during a hearing in a trial brought by relatives of US citizens Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son, and another man, all of whom were killed in overseas drone strikes in Yemen. "The limit is the courthouse door," Collyer said, answering her own question rhetorically.

"the most important thing about the United States is that it’s a nation of laws."

Al-Awlaki, who was killed by a US drone strike in September 2011, was an open member of al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization behind the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Despite his association, he was still a US citizen, and many civil liberties advocates and groups in the US have come out against the idea that the government should be able to order the killing of any citizen it deems a threat, as long as they're outside of the country. Inside the US, the government can't order the execution of someone without first charging them in a trial, per the fifth and 14th amendments to the Constitution, which guarantee "due process." Even then it's up to the courts to determine whether a person is guilty and what their punishment is — whether it's death or something lesser. But just this May, US Attorney General Eric Holder, the head of the Justice Department, argued that such drone strikes abroad without a trial were lawful, writing: "the Constitution does not prohibit the government it establishes from taking action to protect the American people from the threats posed by terrorists who hide in faraway countries and continually plan and launch plots against the U.S. homeland."

The concern from many is that by taking this position, the US executive branch, which includes the White House, is giving itself the ability to act as judge, jury and executioner. Collyer also voiced this concern in Friday's hearing, stating: "The executive [branch] is not an effective check on the executive," later adding, "the most important thing about the United States is that it’s a nation of laws." She also rebuffed the Justice Department attorney's claims that judges don't have the necessary expertise to analyze terrorist threats, saying, "you’d be surprised at the amount of understanding other parts of the government think judges have." Though she hasn't yet put a stop to the practice, Collyer's comments are mark the strongest challenge yet to the White House's claim that US drone strikes on citizens are constitutional and do not require a trial. Collyer, who was appointed by George W. Bush, said she would try to reach her decision in the case soon.