— From NBC's Pete Williams
The Obama administration has offered an unusually public and
detailed justification for its expanded use of unmanned drones to kill
suspected al Qaeda and Taliban figures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some civil liberties groups have questioned the practice, arguing that
it amounts to illegal assassination. But Harold Koh, the State
Department's top lawyer, said in a speech Thursday night that the
accelerated use of drones complies fully with the law of war.
Koh said the decision to carry out a drone attack depends on who and
where the target is, how much of a threat that person is considered to
be, and whether the country in which the target is located has shown
willingness to suppress the threat.
Two principles guide each decision, Koh said -- that attacks be limited to military objective, and that attacks not be carried out if any incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian facilities "would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated."
"Great care is taken to adhere to these principles," he said.
As for the suggestion that even the act of targeting an al Qaeda figure would be illegal, Koh said they are lawful targets. He noted that during World War II, U.S. pilots tracked and shot down the airplane carrying the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. "This was a lawful operation then and would be if conducted today."
During the Bush administration, Koh was highly critical of the government's conduct of the war on terror.