The U.S. has the right to strike terrorists in other sovereign countries beyond “hot battlefields” such as Afghanistan, said John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser.
“Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the United States takes the legal position that, in accordance with international law, we have the authority to take action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces without doing a separate self-defense analysis each time,” Brennan said in prepared remarks delivered today to a conference at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“We reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves,” he said.
Brennan’s address comes a little more than four months after U.S. forces killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and as experts inside and outside the Obama administration debate what limits the U.S. should have in killing lower-ranking al-Qaeda operatives in areas of the Middle East and North Africa. The U.S. has conducted strikes against al-Qaeda targets using drones from Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia.
“The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to ’hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan,” Brennan said.
Some U.S. allies and “others in the international community” disagree with the stance, arguing that action can only be taken in response to an imminent threat, Brennan said.
“Practically speaking, then, the question turns principally on how you define ‘imminence,” he said.
Brennan said because al-Qaeda doesn’t have a traditional force structure or present a threat as a nation-state might, such as massed troops at a border, the concept of imminence “should be broadened.” Increasing numbers of U.S. partners have begun to recognize that, he said.
Because of the need for cooperation in battling terrorists, “the more our views and our allies’ views on these questions converge, without constraining our flexibility, the safer we will be as a country, Brennan, 55, said.
The conference was titled ‘Law, Security and Liberty after 9/11.” In his remarks, Brennan also said that U.S. policy on detention and interrogation must adhere to legal norms.