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'Assassination Memo' a First Step in Setting New Warfare Parameters

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

PARIS -- A leaked U.S. Department of Justice white paper supporting the killing of terrorists overseas who happen to hold American citizenship is causing mass hyperventilation across America. Although average Americans needn't fear the possibility of being picked off by a drone one night while scarfing down macaroni and cheese and watching the game, there is concern that the government is grossly overstepping its bounds by targeting U.S. citizens for extermination.


The document, which the clueless have dubbed the "drone memo," contains precisely zero instances of the word "drone" or any variation thereof. But the memo said the U.S. government should be able to target Americans, right? Yes, but exclusively on foreign soil, and with very specific parameters. The fact that your mother-in-law drops by on occasion does not mean that your living room officially qualifies as a conflict zone, unless it's located somewhere like Yemen or Pakistan.

The "assassination memo" doesn't apply to you if you're an American living inside the United States. If you're abroad, you may be fair game if you're a "senior operational leader" of al-Qaeda and pose an "imminent threat of violent attack against the United States," and if your "capture is infeasible."

These factors must also fit within the "law-of-war principles governing the use of force: necessity, distinction, proportionality, and humanity (the avoidance of unnecessary suffering)." In other words, the government is attempting to lay some legal groundwork for the cases in which terrorists happen to be Americans -- an increasingly common phenomenon.

A lack of discernment over who is awarded American citizenship -- a pattern that arguably started with the relaxing of legal immigration standards by the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy in the 1960s -- is in large part to blame for all the battlefield confusion these days. It used to be that wars took place between nation-states, and you could assume that anyone who shared your nationality and was fighting on the other side deserved a bullet for an act of treason.


These days, the battle lines are drawn between ideologies rather than countries, yet Article 51 of the United Nations Charter grants nations the inherent right to self-defense. The citizenship of the fighters is irrelevant with this relatively new kind of warfare -- at least until someone kills a dual American citizen (like Anwar al-Awlaki, the Forrest Gump of contemporary Islamic terrorism) and human-rights groups try to make the victim sound like Donny Osmond. When these activist groups start trying to wrap up warfare in legal red tape, it becomes evident that we can't fight these fourth-generation, guerilla-style, ideologically driven wars using the outdated framework of old-school, second-generation nation-state conflicts.

What if the next Osama bin Laden happens to have American citizenship? Should he be exempt from the consequences of military action simply because he's an American? Should he be allowed to lawyer up from a foreign battlefield just because his American citizenship is supposed to confer an innate right to by-the-second billable hours? Or instead, and in very defined instances, should he just be vaporized?

This is the sort of scenario for which the Justice Department and the White House appear to be laying the groundwork, and the DOJ memo is clearly just a start in the development of new warfare parameters.


Ideologically based fourth-generation warfare (4GW) is finally attempting to play catch-up with the development of a long-overdue new framework. This isn't about some nefarious plot to kill everyday Americans -- it's about government legally covering its behind for every possible 4GW eventuality.

The subject of drones being the preferred new tools of warfare in an era of heightened sensitivity to military casualties is an entirely different matter of debate.

If, as an American citizen, you steer clear of places like Pakistani terror training camps, you'll be just fine in any case.

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