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Debate: Should The President Be Able To Order Citizens Killed Abroad?

Harvard University law professors Alan Dershowitz (left) and Noah Feldman argue that the president's war-making powers give him the authority to target U.S. citizens overseas.
Samuel LaHoz
Intelligence Squared U.S.
Harvard University law professors Alan Dershowitz (left) and Noah Feldman argue that the president's war-making powers give him the authority to target U.S. citizens overseas.

There are intense debates underway in the United States over the question of targeted killings of terrorist suspects abroad – particularly when those individuals are U.S. citizens.

Some argue that once the president has received authorization to use military force, the executive's war-making powers give him the right to target enemies at war with the United States. When an enemy is diffuse and splintered, like al-Qaida, the definition of the battlefield changes, proponents argue. And if that enemy poses a threat to the United States, even from a nontraditional battlefield, that person is a legitimate target — American citizen or not.

Others are troubled by this line of thinking. The Constitution affords all citizens the due process of law, they argue, and defining the battlefield so broadly undermines the intent of the Founding Fathers. Killing outside of the U.S. justice system, they say, must only be a last resort in response to a truly imminent threat.

Two teams recently debated the motion, "The president has constitutional power to target and kill U.S. citizens abroad," in an Oxford-style debate for Intelligence Squared U.S. In these events, the team that sways the most people by the end of the debate is declared the winner.

Before the debate, the audience at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia voted 29 percent in favor of the motion and 44 percent against, with 27 percent undecided. Afterward, 54 percent agreed with the motion, while 39 percent disagreed — meaning the side arguing that the president should have the power to target and kill U.S. citizens abroad won this particular debate.

Those debating were:


Hina Shamsi is the director of the ACLU's National Security Project, which focuses on U.S. counterterrorism policies and practices that violate the Constitution or the U.S.'s obligations under international law. Shamsi has been involved in the legal proceedings of numerous cases about post-Sept. 11 torture, unlawful detention, discrimination against racial and religious minorities, and the freedoms of speech and association. She teaches a Columbia Law School course on international human rights and has monitored and reported on the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay.

Noah Feldman is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Bloomberg View and the author of five books, on topics from constitutional law to the ethics of nation-building. He helped draft the Iraqi interim constitution, or Transitional Administrative Law, with members of the Iraqi Governing Council and served as senior constitutional adviser to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Feldman is a law professor at Harvard University and a senior fellow of the Society of Fellows. He studied Islamic thought at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.


Alan Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard Law School. He has published more than 1,000 articles in magazines, newspapers, journals and blogs such as The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Harvard Law Review, The Yale Law Journal and Huffington Post. Dershowitz is the author of numerous best-selling books, including his autobiography, Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law.

Michael Lewis, also a Harvard Law School professor, has written extensively on various aspects of the laws of war and the conflict between the U.S. and al-Qaida. Lewis has testified before Congress on the legality of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and on the civil liberties trade-offs associated with trying some al-Qaida members or terrorist suspects before military commissions. Prior to earning his J.D. from Harvard Law School, he served in the U.S. Navy from 1987 to 1995.

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