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.
Beginning in 1965, the U.S. bombed North Vietnamese forces taking refuge in eastern Cambodia for years without congressional approval. By the time Congress put an end to the bombings in 1973, more than 230,000 sorties over the country had dropped some 2.75 million tons of ordnance on more than 113,000 sites, many of them inaccurate. Casualty estimates of that time range from 5,000 Cambodians to half a million, while bombs that failed to explode on impact continue to kill unwitting farmers and children today.
Some historians have also credited the U.S. bombing for driving large numbers of rural Cambodians into the arms of then-insurgent Khmer Rouge, whose brutal regime went on to claim another 1.7 million lives.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan maintained the government’s position that the U.S. bombing of Cambodia was illegal.
“If you kill someone in another country, it’s illegal, unless you have their [the country’s] permission, that’s my opinion,” said Mr. Siphan.
But the U.S. military’s overwhelming force left Cambodia helpless to do anything about it, he added.
“They could do anything they like, legal or illegal; it is their interest,” Mr. Siphan said. “We [had] no ability to keep North Vietnamese out from the country because we were weak.”
He regretted the Justice Department’s decision to use the experience in its defense of U.S. drone strikes.
“I feel sorry that they use that argument,” he said.
Historian and Cambodia expert David Chandler questioned the Justice Department’s choice of years in the U.S.’ yearslong bombing campaign.
“Interesting that the 1970 bombing approved by [the late king and then-head of state Norodom] Sihanouk, and therefore perhaps ‘legal,’ are cited now rather than the hugely destructive 1973 bombings ceased by Congress, which were directed not against Vietnamese but against the Khmer Rouge with whom the U.S. was not at war,” he said by email.
“The point about the 1973 bombings is that they were what a U.S. general called the only war in town, as bombings of Vietnam had stopped following the agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam,” he said. “They were horrible and inexcusable, or excusable only in the sense that they postponed the [Khmer Rouge] victory by at least a year.”
The Khmer Rouge finally overran the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime in 1975.
Historian Ben Kiernan and others have partly blamed U.S. bombings for what followed.
“Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’etat in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide,” he wrote in a 2006 article for Toronto-based The Walrus magazine.
At his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State last month, John Kerry reconfirmed his opinion that the U.S.’ bombing of Cambodia was illegal.
Cambodia has also brought up the bombing in lobbying the U.S. to forgive $274 million in debt—since grown to $445 million with interest—wracked up by the Lon Nol regime, but yet to no avail.
Soon after NBC News released the white paper citing the bombing of Cambodia, the White House reversed course by announcing that it would brief members of Congress on the classified memos.