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Critics Continue to Press Obama on Targeted Killing Policy

President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner delivers his State of the Union speech, Feb. 12, 2013
President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner delivers his State of the Union speech, Feb. 12, 2013
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— President Barack Obama this week pledged to develop a clear policy framework to guide U.S. counterterrorism operations, including targeted killings of terrorist suspects.  But the promise in his State of the Union address has not satisfied critics.  

Obama chose his words carefully on the methods the administration uses in fighting terrorism, including the use of remote-controlled drones against terrorist suspects.

Without using the word drone, he said "a range of capabilities" will be used against terrorists.  And he used his speech to address concerns members of Congress have.

"In our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way," said President Obama. "So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world."

He spoke of a need for a "durable legal and policy framework" for counterterrorism operations.

Controversy over the legal justifications for targeted killings was reignited after the recent leak of a Justice Department report.  

It said Americans working overseas for al-Qaida or an affiliate could be targeted if a high-level U.S. government official determined they pose an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.

That document triggered a wave of criticism on Capitol Hill.  Lawmakers, including Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, demanded that the White House turn over legal opinions used.

Human rights and civil liberties organizations continue to press for more transparency from the Obama administration.

Zeke Johnson, director of Amnesty International USA's security and human rights campaign, says Obama's State of the Union remarks fell short.

"What he should have done is made it clear that the U.S. government will follow its international human rights obligations when it comes to the use of lethal force, when it comes to detention, when it comes to the issue of torture," said Johnson. "There are very clear obligations under law for the U.S. government and President Obama should recommit to meeting those obligations."

The White House says conversations continue with Congress on a legal architecture.  

Press secretary Jay Carney says there will be a need for "combined actions" with Congress.

"The president understands the gravity of these issues," said Carney. "That is why he is committed to taking very seriously his responsibilities in this, and committed to the kind of process that you have seen in an effort to communicate publicly about it."

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, challenges the administration's use of a law passed after the September 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks to justify targeted killings.

"It contains extremely broad language, which the administration is interpreting to permit it to carry out targeted killings far from Afghanistan and outside of any armed conflict," said Shamsi. "So we don't think that the AUMF [Authorization for Use of Military Force] justifies the authority the administration is claiming."

Congressional demands for the White House to turn over all classified legal opinions on targeted killings have delayed a final Senate Intelligence Committee vote on John Brennan, the nominee to head the CIA.

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