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Legal questions raised over CIA drone strikes

Professors say US could be charged

By Lolita C. Baldor
Associated Press / April 29, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Is the CIA’s secret program of drone strikes against terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen a case of illegal assassinations or legitimate self-defense?

That was a central question yesterday as the program was criticized by several legal scholars, who called for greater oversight by Congress, arguing the attacks could violate international law and put intelligence officers at risk of prosecution for murder in foreign countries.

Several law professors offered conflicting views, underscoring the murky legal nature of America’s nine-year-old war against extremists. The conflict has spread from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a complex campaign against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other insurgents worldwide.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have defended the use of attacks from unmanned aircraft. But they have also tiptoed around the issue because the CIA program — which has been escalated in Pakistan over the past year — is classified and has not yet been acknowledged publicly by the government.

The CIA strikes are “a clear violation of international law,’’ Mary Ellen O’Connell, law professor at University of Notre Dame Law School, told the House Oversight subcommittee, chaired by Representative John F. Tierney, Democrat of Salem.

O’Connell said the rest of the world does not recognize American authority to carry out attacks in Yemen and Pakistan.

CIA spokesman George Little would say yesterday only that the CIA’s counterterrorism operations are conducted in strict accord with the law.

Tierney acknowledged that he did not expect quick answers to all the legal questions. But he said Congress and the administration must begin to talk about the issue more openly.