Justice Dept. document justifies killing Americans overseas if they pose ‘imminent threat’

A Justice Department document describes the criteria for killing American citizens believed to be plotting terror attacks from abroad. The Post’s Karen DeYoung helps explain what the “white paper” does and doesn’t say. (The Fold/The Washington Post)
February 5, 2013

The United States can lawfully kill a U.S. citizen overseas if it determines the target is a “senior, operational leader” of al-Qaeda or an associated group and poses an imminent threat to the United States, according to a Justice Department document published late Monday by NBC News.

The document defines “imminent threat” expansively, saying it does not have to be based on intelligence about a specific attack since such actions are being “continually” planned by al-Qaeda. “In this context,” it says, “imminence must incorporate considerations of the relevant window of opportunity” as well as possible collateral damage to civilians.

It says that such determinations can be made by an “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government.”

NBC said the document was provided by the Obama administration last summer to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees as a summary of a classified memo on targeted killings of U.S. citizens prepared by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

The memo was written months prior to a September 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Muslim cleric accused of helping al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate plan attacks against the United States. Three other Americans, including Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, have also been killed in U.S. strikes in Yemen.

The Obama administration, in decisions upheld in federal court rulings, has repeatedly denied demands by lawmakers, civil rights groups and the media to release the memo and other information on targeted killings — or even to acknowledge their existence. Senators are expected to closely question John O. Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, on drone strikes, the memo and the Awlaki killing during Brennan’s confirmation hearing Thursday on his nomination to become Obama’s new CIA director.

Justice officials could not be reached for comment on the document, which NBC posted on its Web site. The 16-page document is titled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaeda or An Associated Force.”

In announcing Awlaki’s death, Obama described him as the leader of “external affairs” of Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday night called the document a “profoundly disturbing” summary of “a stunning overreach of executive authority — the claimed power to declare Americans a threat and kill them far from a recognized battlefield and without any judicial involvement before or after the fact.”

The ACLU sought the original Justice Department memo as part of a case dismissed last month by a federal judge in New York. Last Friday, the ACLU filed a notice of appeal in that case.

“Needless to say, the white paper is not a substitute for the legal memo. But it’s a pretty remarkable document,” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said.

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