Sorry if this is a stupid question. I am not an American (i.e. Canadian) and I was speaking to a friend today and he told me that apparently Obama passed a law last year that gives the president the power to execute any American citizen without having an actual trial. Is this true or not?

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    In addition to the good answers below, is also important to note that in the United States the President does not pass laws, Congress does. The President merely has the ability to sign, and enforce them. Mar 9 '13 at 17:18
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    @MichaelKingsmill - while what you said is technically true as far as passing laws, how does that have any bearing on policy, which is done via executive orders and interpretation of laws passed by executive branch for actioning?
    – user4012
    Mar 9 '13 at 18:41
  • @DVK - I was just commenting on the questioner's wording. I have no quibble with the answers, which I think are quite well done. Mar 9 '13 at 19:39
  • @MichaelKingsmill Oops, sorry that was what I meant.
    – Jey
    Mar 9 '13 at 21:20

In a roundabout way, there's some truth to that statement, though it's a bit more nuanced than that. It refers to the administration's claims that they have the power to go after high-level terrorist organizations--including targeting individuals (who could be citizens of the US).

It's an interesting, but also complex issue that's really about how we define war and enemy combatants in the modern era.

There's been plenty of coverage on it over the past year, so plenty to search on. Here's a more recent article that talks about the aspect of US soil, which eventually led to the recent Rand Paul filibuster this past week:


  • Liked the article.
    – Jey
    Mar 9 '13 at 21:21
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    @Avi, ah, but there is a roundabout way...as there is no requirement for any sort of due process prior to ordering the military strike. I doubt Obama, or any president, has any intention of using that loophole, but it's there.
    – user1530
    Mar 15 '13 at 15:22
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    He'd be in violation of the legal framework if he ordered the assassination of a noncombatant. OP specifically asked if a law allowed Obama to assassinate anyone, and it doesn't. The legal framework only allows him to use drone strikes to target combatants, just like we've always been using military hardware to target combaants.
    – Publius
    Mar 15 '13 at 17:52
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    It seems to me that it is fundamentally inaccurate to use the term "execution" then, since a military action against an enemy combatant is very much not the same thing as execution. In this sense, there is no truth to the statement at all, roundabout or otherwise. The president can order someone (with conditions) to be killed, but not executed, without a trial. Execution is a form of killing but not all killings are executions.
    – KRyan
    Mar 25 '13 at 17:34
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    @Avi: Till we see some result of this violation (like - who has been prosecuted because of "collateral damage" of these drone strikes), I don't believe there is any legal framework. Aug 2 '13 at 9:02

Short version: No and yes. Not "anyone" (see DA's answer for more detail, but, but yes, some people without trial, when

"an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government" determines the target is an imminent threat, when capture would be infeasible and when the operation is "conducted consistent with applicable law of war principles." (src)

However, this is not new or unique to USA - heads of state always had ability to have enemy combatants killed outside judicial system - it's called "waging war".

The only difference is that in this case, the definition of what specifically constitutes an enemy combatant is shifting away from early-20th-century idea of a uniformed member of an official state army, to include asymmetric warfare guerrilla fighters and their leaders despite not being associated with a specific officially recognized state.

This is supposedly based on standard "self defense" war doctrine which is recognized by United Nations, although specific legal issues are subject to much debating and frequently are more a matter of opinion than law.


No, not anyone. US citizens on US soil, not posing an imminent threat may not be executed.

What your friend told you likely stems from comments made by our current Attorney Genrral, Eric Holder. In response to a question about using drone strikes against US citizens, here in the United States, Holder wrote:

[...] The question you have posed is therefore entirely hypothetical, unlikely to occur, and one we hope no president will ever have to confront. It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States. For example, the president could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstances like a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001. [...]

After Rand Paul filibustered the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director, Holder clarified his remarks.

"Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on an American soil?" The answer to that question is no."

Under questioning by Senator Ted Cruz, Eric Holder seemed to be hung up on using the word appropriate, when asked if using a drone strike on a US citizen in the US who was not an imminent threat was constitutional.

It is important to note that the US Justice Department does believe that they have the authority to execute US citizens that are not in the United States, that would be infeasible to capture, and that are not currently posing an immenent threat. This legal analysis, a 50-page internal memo, was performed a year before Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in Yemen, along with another US Citizen who wasn't the target of the attack. A white-paper version of the 50-page memo was released to the public, the Justice Department removing parts it considered protected due to attorney client privilege.


I can execute anyone with out a trial. I would then be guilty of Murder. I would argue that the same would be true of the a member of the government doing the same with out circumstances where they were defending the lives of others that would have been harmed if it were not for the immediate action.

While the president has sworn to uphold the constitution and laws of the US the president is human and can decide to break that oath and the law if he chooses. If the president issues an illegal order it is the responsibility of the person whom the order was given to to then refuse that order. Otherwise they are equally guilty of breaking the law.

  • While there is some responsibility for the lower ranked soldier, in general, the chain of command dictates "that those who issue orders are responsible for the consequences, not those who carry them out." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Command_hierarchy In the context of being told to target a military combatant (the likely target of such an order by the Commander in Chief), it's hard to assume that the soldier(s) would be held individually responsible.
    – user1530
    Mar 10 '13 at 7:15
  • @DA. I do not know how it is in the USA but in Russia an order to kill an enemy soldier even issued by a commander-in-chief, would be illegal. He cannot issue orders to kill anybody, even combatants. No officer can issue such orders. The ordiers usually read "strike", "take", "inflict damage" or even "inflict casualties", "force enemy to retreat". Not "kill".
    – Anixx
    Mar 10 '13 at 8:32
  • @Anixx I'm not debating the legality of it, merely pointing out that the chain of command, as designed, is meant to hold superiors responsible. (We can argue if it actually does in practice, but that's another debate...)
    – user1530
    Mar 10 '13 at 8:34
  • @DA. There was a case in Russia where officer Eduard Ulman killed several captured Chechens. He claimed he was orderd to do so by a higher officer, while the court decided that such order is impossible and counted it as an instigation for murder while sentencing Ulman for committing the murder (and the higher officer also, but not for giving a criminal order but for instigating murder).
    – Anixx
    Mar 10 '13 at 10:44
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    @DA - That is not true of the US Military. All soldiers have the duty and obligation to refuse to obey an illegal order. Even if they are recruits in boot camp. There was a famous case with marine recruits being ordered to viciously beat a recruit who was not shaping up. The recruit died and even though the beating was ordered the soldiers that carried out the order were guilty of murder, as was the officer who ordered it. That said the illegal order defense is rarely successful at court martial. Mar 11 '13 at 4:32

Yes, it is true, but usually understood as the right of the President's administration to kill anybody they choose outside the United States.

As was later clarified by John Brennan, this is not a punishment for a crime but a preventive measure so to prevent crimes in the future. As such they include in the list not only confirmed criminals but also people who can be suspected to conduct or coordinate crimes against the United States in the future, say on the ideological basis.


The list of the people planned for the extrajudicial killings by the Administration can be compared to a similar, so-called "Magnitsky list" which was designed to exert pressure on foreign law enforcement, politicians and judiciary, especially the judges.

Unlike the "killing list", the Magnitsky list is kept secret, a person can be threatened with possible inclusion into this list privately.

A person in the Magnitsky list should be denied entry in the US and their property should be confiscated by any US subject or company who holds or stores it, even abroad (otherwise the company is subject to penalties).

For example if a judge who took a decision against a pro-US politician or businessman stores his money on a VISA card, the money should be taken by VISA.

Among the first people who made into this list (as was admitted) were the judges and prosecutors of the trial over Khodorkovsky, a Russian businessman who was accused in illegal privatization, tax evasion and murdering people via his security service.

Although this is rarely discussed this list is international as well and spans all countries.

  • Right... because denying a visa or cancelling their credit card is EXACTLY like murdering someone.
    – user4012
    Mar 10 '13 at 14:55
  • @DVK this is not exactly the same of course. First you make it into the first list, then to the other one. Or (more realistically) an official fearing possibility of being put in the Magnitsky list will sign an agreement with the US regarding secret prisons or the drone base (a system of such bases is projected to span the whole world, by Brennon).
    – Anixx
    Mar 10 '13 at 15:09
  • "right...to kill anybody" = this is not correct. The right certainly does not state 'anybody', but rather very specific types of people (ie, people posing immediate threats to the nation)
    – user1530
    Mar 10 '13 at 17:21
  • @DA. Anybody whom the Administration decides to be a potential treat (i.e., undesirables).
    – Anixx
    Mar 10 '13 at 17:38
  • I'm no lawyer, and haven't read all the material on it, but my understanding is that it has to be an immediate perceived threat. Regardless 'potential threat' is not the same as 'undesirable'. The thing with discussions of legal issues is that wording is very important, as well as context, and specific legal definitions of terms being used.
    – user1530
    Mar 10 '13 at 17:58

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