Drone Strikes on Americans: Should You Be Concerned?

By Andrew Lu on February 07, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. government may use drone strikes to kill U.S. citizens abroad under specific circumstances, according to a confidential Justice Department memo that's been leaked to the press. Should you be concerned?

As you may know, drone strikes against terror suspects in the Middle East and South Asia have dramatically increased during President Obama's administration. The legal justification for these fatal drone strikes abroad has largely been kept secret.

So if you're enjoying a day at Euro Disney with your family, could you suddenly get shot down by a drone? Not really, unless your actions give the U.S. government reason to hunt you down, according to the 16-page Justice Department memo uncovered by NBC News.

For example, you may be targeted by a U.S. drone strike if:

  1. You are a senior member of al-Qaida. Your membership in al-Qaida painting a target on your back should not come as a surprise. The memo apparently only authorizes killings of al-Qaida members and "associated forces." Unfortunately, it's not entirely clear what an "associated force" is. Presumably, any group the government wants to wipe off the map?

  2. You pose an "imminent" threat. Those plotting in basements as well as those in the middle of launching a missile strike may all have reason to worry, as "imminent" is another term the government fails to precisely define.

  3. Your capture is "infeasible." Apparently the government's first choice would be to take you alive. But if that's somehow "infeasible," expect a drone to come after you instead. Unfortunately for U.S. citizens plotting terror attacks while overseas, the Justice memo also loosely defines this term, meaning it's likely that infeasibility of capture could be used to justify any killing.

Under these guidelines, who should really be concerned about drone strikes on Americans abroad? While the strikes are meant to target only terror suspects, the memo is filled with so much legal jargon that much of it can be open to interpretation. That arguably leaves enough wiggle room for the government to kill whomever it wants, critics claim.

So while average Americans shouldn't have to worry about being killed in a drone strike abroad, there are some real concerns about the legal rhetoric used in the Justice memo, as the Lawfare blog points out. Such justifications may not be new or surprising, but they're still worth debating.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard