A major news story broke this past week concerning the Obama administration's white paper concerning the legality of drone strikes on American citizens abroad. The issue is of particular prominence, as the letter was subject of significant controversy amongst the Senate confirmation hearings for the president's appointee for CIA director, John Brennan.
During Mr. Brennan's confirmation hearings, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee directed harsh criticism of the program to Mr. Brennan; at one point, Senator King, of Maine, commented on the legality of drone strikes by stating, "I understand that you can't have co-commanders in chief, but having the executive be the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner all in one is very contrary to the traditions and the laws of this country, particularly in situations where there is time."
A Department of Justice white letter outlines the supposed legality of the program with respect to American citizens. In short, the DoJ relies on the Supreme Court's previous ruling in Hamdi v. United States, which declared that the military may constitutionally use deadly force against enemy hostiles, even if those hostiles are American citizens. The DoJ rationalizes the drone strikes under this same paradigm, stating the that Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF) confers the ability of the United States to act in its national self-defense.
What continues to remain unclear, however, is how or when the executive branch determines that an individual is to be classified as an enemy combatant; currently, the process by which individuals are placed on a "kill list", for lack of a better term, remains unclear.
Citations: "Department of Justice White Paper." MSNBC Media, 4 February 2013.