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House subcommittee examines legality of unmanned drone strikes

[JURIST] A US subcommittee heard testimony Wednesday on the use of unmanned predator drone strikes [JURIST news archive]. The National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform [official websites] held a hearing [materials] on the legality of unmanned targeting. In his opening remarks [text, PDF], subcommittee chair John Tierney (D-MA) [official website] said:

The use of unmanned weapons to target individuals - and, for that matter, the targeting of individuals in general - raises many complex legal questions. We must examine who can be a legitimate target, where that person can be legally targeted, and when the risk of collateral damage is too high. We must ask whether it makes a difference if the military carries out an attack, or whether other government entities such as the Central Intelligence Agency may legally conduct such attacks. We must ensure that the Administration's understanding of the authorities granted to it by Congress do not exceed what Congress intended.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website], which has consistently opposed the use of unmanned targeting, sent a letter [text, PDF] to President Barack Obama Wednesday, urging an end to the program.

Last month, State Department Legal Adviser [official website] Harold Koh [academic profile] defended the legality [JURIST report] of the use of unmanned drones. Earlier in March, the ACLU filed suit [JURIST report] seeking information related to the US government's use of unmanned drones. The ACLU alleges that the drones have been used by the military and CIA for unlawful killings in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. The ACLU also cites troubling reports indicating that US citizens may be targeted and killed by unmanned drones. In October, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston [official website] noted that the use of unmanned drones by the US to carry out attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan may be illegal [JURIST report]. Alston said, "[t]he onus is really on the government of the United States to reveal more about the ways in which it makes sure that arbitrary executions, extrajudicial executions, are not in fact being carried out through the use of these weapons." Alston criticized the US policy in a report to the UN General Assembly's human rights committee that was presented as part of a larger demand that no state be free from accountability.

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