US memo gives broad legal rationale for targeted killings

Published: February 5, 2013
Concerns raised after American citizens Anwer al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were executed in US drone strikes without ever being charged with a crime.

Concerns raised after American citizens Anwer al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were executed in US drone strikes without ever being charged with a crime.

WASHINGTON: A newly revealed Justice Department memo finds that US citizens believed to be senior al Qaeda operators may lawfully be killed, even if no intelligence shows they are actively plotting an attack.

The disclosure by NBC News, which posted a link to the white paper on its web page, comes amid rising controversy over US use of drone strikes to kill al Qaeda suspects in Pakistan and Yemen.

Among the most controversial were the September 2011 killings in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, whose killings stoked concern because they were US citizens who had never been charged with a crime.

The white paper offers a more expansive definition of self-defense and imminent attack than those given publicly in the past by senior US officials, who have cited “the inherent right to self-defense” in defending the attacks.

“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo says.

Instead, an “informed, high-level” official could decide that the targeted individual posed “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” if he had “recently” engaged in such activities and there was no evidence he had renounced or abandoned them.

The memo also says the individual’s capture must be infeasible, and can be considered so if capture posed an “undue risk” to US personnel.

The 16-page memo is entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of al Qaeda or An Associated Force.”

NBC said the memo was given to the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees in June on condition it be kept confidential and not discussed publicly.

Its leak comes just two days before White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan goes before the Senate for hearings on his nomination to be head of the CIA.

Brennan has been a central player in the US drone campaign, which has expanded sharply under President Barack Obama despite qualms about its legality and public outrage in Pakistan over civilian deaths.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued to obtain the legal document used to authorize the killing of Awlaki, a radical preacher, called the white paper “chilling.”

“According to the white paper, the government has the authority to carry out targeted killings of US citizens without presenting evidence to a judge before the fact or after, and indeed without even acknowledging to the courts or to the public that the authority has been exercised.

“Without saying so explicitly, the government claims the authority to kill American terrorism suspects in secret,” he wrote on the ACLU’s web site.

Administration officials fiercely defend the drone program as key to the US strategy against al Qaeda, in a war against terrorism with no geographic boundaries.

“It’s been an important part of our operations against al Qaeda, not just in Pakistan, but also in Yemen, in Somalia and I think it ought to continue to be a tool we ought to use where necessary,” outgoing US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview with AFP last week.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (10)

  • Mirza
    Feb 5, 2013 - 10:30PM

    No act of killing is good and cannot be condoned. However, targeted killing of terrorists is lesser of the other evils like indiscriminate bombings, waging wars and invasions where many innocent people are killed.Recommend

  • John B
    Feb 6, 2013 - 12:15AM

    Policing before or after the crime? Shall I re-apprehend the rapist who just walked out of jail or shall I wait until he rapes again.

    The imminent and present danger clause applies here.


  • Khan
    Feb 6, 2013 - 12:28AM

    only if were resident of those areas and had got affected by them. would like to hear what you had to say then.


  • Mirza
    Feb 6, 2013 - 1:35AM

    Khan Sahib, if I know there are terrorists in my neighborhood I would move out and away. First thing I would do is to report their presence to whoever is in power. Remember Mush wrote in his book that we made lot of money by handing over many terrorists to the US. Terrorists only go to the hospitable environments and not hostile places. Let us not welcome them and not create safe havens for them. I guess you did not read the first line of my post.

  • muhammad
    Feb 6, 2013 - 2:24AM

    Everyone is innocent until proven guilty through due course of law. This applies to everyone including “suspected” terrorist. Extra judicial killings kill one and harbour dozens more.


  • Freeman
    Feb 6, 2013 - 2:24AM

    “”First thing I would do is to report their presence to whoever is in power” lol. If that power made them themself then??

    Then why USA created them in 70’s and 80’s. They used the same people against other country and praised their work. Some of them became American Administrations VIP Guests in 80’s. I beleive you forgot it.


  • Logic
    Feb 6, 2013 - 3:56AM

    So the official policy is lets stoop to the level of those who have stooped to our level.


  • numbersnumbers
    Feb 6, 2013 - 4:18AM

    So from your comment I would guess that there were trials somewhere for all those killed on 9/11! Please tell us where those trials were held because I somehow missed them!


  • John B
    Feb 6, 2013 - 5:19AM

    Laws are only for civilized people


  • shazada zahid malik-loan
    Feb 6, 2013 - 8:15AM

    The continuous use of drones may also lead the anti-imperialist forces to devise plans to counter the killing inflicted on them by the indiscriminate use of these weapons by the Americans – it will come into operation sooner than later. There is no justification for killing these innocent people labelled as terrorists at the behest of the Israelis – they are also using (and had been for a long time) same methods against the Palestinians whose land they the Zionists have occupied. The death will surely be avenged by their loved ones.


More in World