Justice Stevens: Bin Laden Killing Legal

05/13/2011 05:52 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2011

The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy Seals was legal.

So said retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in a speech Thursday evening.
Speaking at a dinner that capped a daylong Northwestern University Law Review symposium in his honor, Stevens eschewed expected after-meal remarks to make a what he called a "serious" issue that has been in much the news of late.

As a Navy officer who contributed to the breaking of the Japanese code during World War II, Stevens was on duty at Pearl Harbor Easter Sunday 1943. Through codebreaking the United States had learned the whereabouts of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, architect of the infamous 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor that drove the country into the war. On that day U.S. forces downed Yamamoto's plane, killing him. Stevens has said he harbored "humanitarian concerns" about the targeted killing -- even though his superiors and, indeed, most Americans had none. Indeed, Stevens later said that targeting a known individual for death was different from killing anonymous enemies in time of war; it was, he said, more like the decision juries are asked to make in a capital sentencing here.

But the May 2 operation that ended bin Laden's life was different, Stevens told his audience at Chicago's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Noting "some debate about the propriety of the attack on Osama bin Laden by Navy Seals," the former Navy man first made clear that, "I must say I was proud of the Seals," then added that he was also proud of President Barack Obama for making the decision to undertake the operation.
"It was not merely to do justice and avenge September 11," Stevens said. Implicitly acknowledge the ongoing agenda of al Qaeda, the terrorist network that bin Laden led, Stevens said of this month's operation: "It was to remove an enemy who had been trying every day to attack the United States. I have not the slightest doubt that it was entirely appropriate for American forces to act."