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In Speech, Top Pentagon Lawyer Defends Targeted Killing Program

The top lawyer at the Pentagon offered a strong defense of the Obama administration's targeted killing program Wednesday, arguing the use of lethal force against the enemy is a "long-standing and long-legal practice."

In a speech at Yale University's Law School, Jeh Johnson said there's no real difference between high tech strikes against members of al-Qaida today and the U.S. military decision to target an airplane carrying the commander of the Japanese Navy in 1943.

"Should we take a dimmer view of the legality of lethal force directed against individual members of the enemy, because modern technology makes our weapons more precise?" Johnson said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks.

Nowhere in the talk did Johnson explicitly mention the U.S. drone program, used to kill radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, al-Qaida propagandist Samir Kahn, and at least one other U.S. citizen over the past year.

The Obama administration's legal basis for those strikes remains secret, despite ongoing lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times that seek more information about how the federal government decides to target its own citizens.

Johnson acknowledged over the past few years that he has engaged in vigorous disagreements with other Obama administration lawyers, including State Department adviser and former Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh, over how to confront important national security questions.

"The public should be reassured, not alarmed, to learn there is occasional disagreement and debate among lawyers within the Executive Branch of government," Johnson said.

"A legal review of the application of lethal force is the weightiest judgment a lawyer can make," he added.

Johnson said the top national security lawyers in the administration had come to agreement about the basic principles for fighting al-Qaida and its associates all over the world: the need to use conventional legal tools against an unconventional enemy that observes no borders; reliance on the congressional authorization to use military force shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; and the idea that U.S. citizens who seek to attack their country aren't immune from military action.

And he said he was acting with an eye toward history. His uncle, a Tuskegee airman named Robert B. Johnson, challenged segregation within the officers clubs back in 1945, only to be reprimanded and denied the chance to serve in combat. But his uncle, Johnson said, never regretted his actions for a moment.

"My colleagues and I who serve in government today will not surrender to the national security pressures of the moment," Johnson said. "We must adopt legal positions that comport with common sense, and fit well within the mainstream of legal thinking..."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.