From the Dirksen Senate Office Building where the Judiciary Committee is holding a Department of Justice oversight hearing with Attorney General Eric Holder: A major story coming into this hearing is Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) epistolary exchange with Holder regarding the government’s possible legal authority to target U.S. citizens on U.S. soil with military force, without trial. Other key issues include the proposed assault weapons ban, which goes to markup in the Judiciary Committee tomorrow morning, prevention of financial fraud, the fines against BP related to the Gulf oil spill, and the effects of the sequester on the Department of Justice’s various activities.
Holder’s opening statement touched on these issues, dwelling on the administration’s call for an assault weapons ban and other expanded gun regulations, including limits on armor-piercing ammunition. However, there was one exception. Holder’s statement included minimal, general discussion of national security issues. No references were made to targeted killings or the legal justifications for drone warfare.
After talking around Chairman Leahy’s (D-VT) question on the matter — “Can you agree there is no scenario in which it would be appropriate for the government to use an armed drone on U.S. soil? to strike at an American citizen?” — and seeming to shake his head to indicate his endorsement of Senator Feinstein’s (D-CA) assertion that she did not think that such a strike would be legal, he was driven to give a simple, one-word answer by Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Cruz asked whether a strike on an American citizen with known involvement in terrorist plots against the United States sitting in a cafe and not posing an imminent threat to any U.S. citizen would be constitutional on American soil, as apparently it is overseas. Holder demurred, but after the two went back and forth a couple of times, Cruz lost his patience and explained, “My question isn’t about propriety: Do you think it’s constitutional?” Holder dodged again, and Cruz responded that he would simply move on, but Holder interjected, “I thought I was saying no — no.” Feinstein nodded her head and Holder looked over, seeming to acknowledge their earlier exchange.
Without ruling out further developments, it would appear that the Attorney General of United States of America has indicated that the federal government lacks constitutional authority to target an American citizen with deadly force on American soil without trial.