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A “profoundly disturbing” Justice Department document — with “chilling” parallels to the Bush torture memos — obtained by NBC News outlines when the U.S. can put its own citizens on a “kill list” to be targeted in drone strikes.  

“This is a profoundly disturbing document, and it’s hard to believe that it was produced in a democracy built on a system of checks and balances. It summarizes in cold legal terms a stunning overreach of executive authority – the claimed power to declare Americans a threat and kill them far from a recognized battlefield and without any judicial involvement before or after the fact,” Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement.

Describing problematic rationale of the document, Jameel Jaffer, ACLU’s Deputy Legal Director, writes:

The paper’s basic contention is that the government has the authority to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen if “an informed, high-level official” deems him to present a “continuing” threat to the country. This sweeping authority is said to exist even if the threat presented isn’t imminent in any ordinary sense of that word, even if the target has never been charged with a crime or informed of the allegations against him, and even if the target is not located anywhere near an actual battlefield. […]

Even more problematic, the paper contends that the limits on the government’s claimed authority are not enforceable in any court. […] Without saying so explicitly, the government claims the authority to kill American terrorism suspects in secret.

Speaking on Democracy Now! on Tuesday morning, Jaffer added that this is not real transparency from the administration; this is a briefing paper, not a legal memo.

Vincent Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, also notes that this white paper lacks real transparency, and adds:

The parallels to the Bush administration torture memos are chilling. Those were unchecked legal justifications drawn up to justify torture; these are unchecked justifications drawn up to justify extrajudicial killing. President Obama released the Bush torture memos to be transparent; he must release his own legal memos and not just a Cliffs Notes version for public consumption, particularly when scores of civilian lives are at stake. Despite this attempt to appear transparent, the program remains opaque. This will rightly raise many questions for John Brennan at his confirmation hearing on Thursday beyond his role in the Bush torture program, since he is among the main architects of the Obama administration targeted killing program.

Guardian columnist and former constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald also draws parallels to the Bush torture memos, writing that the white paper “is every bit as chilling as the Bush OLC torture memos in how its clinical, legalistic tone completely sanitizes the radical and dangerous power it purports to authorize.”

–Glenn Greenwald continues:

This new memo makes clear that this Bush/Cheney worldview is at the heart of the Obama presidency. The president, it claims, “retains authority to use force against al-Qaida and associated forces outside the area of active hostilities”. In other words: there are, subject to the entirely optional “feasibility of capture” element, no geographic limits to the president’s authority to kill anyone he wants. This power applies not only to war zones, but everywhere in the world that he claims a member of al-Qaida is found. This memo embraces and institutionalizes the core Bush/Cheney theory that justified the entire panoply of policies Democrats back then pretended to find so objectionable.

“This briefing paper is not a substitute for the 50-page legal memo on which it’s based,” the ACLU’s Shamsi explained in their statement. 

“When the executive branch seeks to give itself the unilateral authority to kill its own citizens, a summary of its argument is no substitute for the argument itself. Among other things, we need to know if the limits the executive purports to impose on its killing authority are as loosely defined as in this summary, because if they are, they ultimately mean little. President Obama rightly released the Bush-era OLC torture memos and he should now hold his own administration to the same standard by releasing its killing memo.” 

Read the full 16-page document here (pdf).  

Andrea Germanos is a staff writer at Common Dreams, where this article orginally appeared.