American citizens are not immune from being treated like an enemy if they take up arms against the United States, the CIA general counsel said on Thursday. CIA General Counsel Stephen Preston was responding to a question at an American Bar Association national security conference about the killing of Americans overseas without presenting evidence of wrongdoing.
A CIA drone strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric linked to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, earlier this year. He was linked to failed plots to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger plane in 2009 and cargo planes headed for the United States in 2010, U.S. officials say.
Preston said he would not discuss Awlaki or any specific operations. “I will make this observation that citizenship does not confer immunity on one who takes up arms against his own country. It didn’t in World War Two when there were American citizens who joined the Nazi army and it doesn’t today,” Preston said.
Jeh Johnson, Defense Department general counsel, said he echoed Preston’s comments “in terms of those who are combatants, part of the congressionally declared enemy, who also happen to be U.S. citizens.”
But he said the same view would not apply to someone who was not considered an enemy combatant. “We go down a slippery slope if an individual who wants to do harm to Americans and who is inspired in his own basement by the writings he has read from al Qaeda and he hasn’t interacted with a single other individual in that group, yet he has decided to do violence against America based on what he read, in my view is not part of the congressionally declared enemy and we have to be careful not to go down that landscape,” Johnson said.
He said it was not feasible to take decisions made on enemy combatants to courts each time. “Courts are not equipped to make those types of decisions which very often are based moment-by-moment on an intelligence picture that constantly evolves,” Johnson said.