A U.S. Justice Department document that says America can legally order the killing of its citizens if they are believed to be al-Qaida leaders uses the devastating and illegal bombing of Cambodia in the 1960s and ’70s to help make its case.
American broadcaster NBC News first reported on the “white paper”—a summary of classified memos by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Legal Council—on Monday.
The 16-page paper makes a legal case for the U.S. government’s highly controversial use of unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists, including some U.S. citizens. In making its argument, the document brings up the U.S.’ bombing of Cambodia—which claimed thousands of innocent lives in the pursuit of North Vietnamese forces—to argue for the right to go after its enemies in neutral countries.
“The Department has not found any authority for the proposition that when one of the parties to an armed conflict plans and executes operations from a base in a new nation, an operation to engage the enemy in that location cannot be part of the original armed conflict,” the paper reads. “That does not appear to be the rule of the historical practice, for instance, even in a traditional international conflict.”
To help make its case, the Justice Department cites an address then-U.S. State Department legal adviser John Stevenson delivered to the New York Bar Association in 1970 regarding the U.S.’ ongoing military activity in Cambodia.
Mr. Stevenson, the white paper summarizes, argued “that in an international armed conflict, if a neutral state has been unable for any reason to prevent violations of its neutrality by the troops of one belligerent using its territory as a base of operations, the other belligerent has historically been justified in attacking those enemy forces in that state.”
In other words, Mr. Stevenson, speaking on the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, said history gave the U.S. the right to bomb a country that could not keep the U.S.’ enemies out.
The Justice Department is now using that argument to help make its case for killing suspected al-Qaida leaders of U.S. citizenship abroad.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh declined to comment.