The U.S. position, under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, has been that drone strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders are lawful under U.S. and international law. They are permitted by the September 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force Act, which empowered the president to “all necessary and appropriate force” against nations, organizations or persons who planned, committed or aided the Sept. 11 attacks.
The United States also believes that drone strikes are permitted under international law and the United Nations Charter as actions in self-defense, either with the consent of the country where the strike takes place or because that country is unwilling or unable to act against an imminent threat to the United States. U.S. officials have been understandably reluctant to confirm whether consent has been given by particular countries.
Obama administration officials have explained in the past that strikes against particular militant leaders are permissible, either because the individuals are part of the overall U.S. conflict with al-Qaeda or because they pose imminent threats to the United States. President Obama emphasized Awlaki’s operational role on Friday, stating that he was the “leader of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
The killing of Awlaki raises additional legal concerns because U.S. citizens have certain constitutional rights wherever they are in the world. Some human rights groups have asserted that due process requires prior judicial review before killing an American, but it is unlikely that the Constitution requires judicial involvement in the case of a U.S. citizen engaged in terrorist activity outside this country. Administration lawyers undoubtedly reviewed the targeting of Awlaki even more carefully than of a non-American, and the Justice Department reportedly prepared an opinion concluding that his killing would comply with domestic and international law. This is likely to be considered sufficient due process under U.S. constitutional standards.
But the U.S. legal position may not satisfy the rest of the world. No other government has said publicly that it agrees with the U.S. policy or legal rationale for drones. European allies, who vigorously criticized the Bush administration for asserting the unilateral right to use force against terrorists in countries outside Afghanistan, have neither supported nor criticized reported U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Instead, they have largely looked the other way, as they did with the killing of Osama bin Laden.