“What constitutes due process in this case is a due process in war,” said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss closely held deliberations within the administration.
The administration has faced a legal challenge and public criticism for targeting Aulaqi, who was born in New Mexico, because of constitutional protections afforded U.S. citizens. The memorandum may represent an attempt to resolve, at least internally, a legal debate over whether a president can order the killing of U.S. citizens overseas as a counterterrorism measure.
The operation to kill Aulaqi involved CIA and military assets under CIA control. A former senior intelligence official said that the CIA would not have killed an American without such a written opinion.
A second American killed in Friday’s attack was Samir Khan, a driving force behind Inspire, the English-language magazine produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. An administration official said the CIA did not know Khan was with Aulaqi, but they also considered Khan a belligerent whose presence near the target would not have stopped the attack.
The circumstances of Khan’s death were reminiscent of a 2002 U.S. drone strike in Yemen that targeted Abu Ali al-Harithi, a Yemeni al-Qaeda operative accused of planning the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. That strike also killed a U.S. citizen who the CIA knew was in Harithi’s vehicle but who was not a target of the attack.
The Obama administration has spoken in broad terms about its authority to use military and paramilitary force against al-Qaeda and associated forces beyond “hot,” or traditional, battlefields such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Officials said that certain belligerents aren’t shielded because of their citizenship.
“As a general matter, it would be entirely lawful for the United States to target high-level leaders of enemy forces, regardless of their nationality, who are plotting to kill Americans both under the authority provided by Congress in its use of military force in the armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces as well as established international law that recognizes our right of self-defense,” an administration official said in a statement Friday.
President Obama and various administration officials referred to Aulaqi publicly for the first time Friday as the “external operations” chief for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a label that may be intended to underscore his status as an operational leader who posed an imminent threat.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. The administration officials refused to disclose the exact legal analysis used to authorize targeting Aulaqi, or how they considered any Fifth Amendment right to due process.