The Obama administration is weighing whether to approve a lethal strike against a U.S. citizen who is accused of being part of the al-Qaeda terrorist network overseas and involved in ongoing plotting against American targets, U.S. officials said.
The officials said no decision has been reached on whether to add the alleged operative to the administration’s kill list, a step that would require Justice Department approval under new counterterrorism guidelines adopted by President Obama last year.
U.S. officials have not revealed the identity of the alleged operative or the country where he is believed to be located, citing concern that disclosing those details would send him deeper into hiding and prevent any U.S. strike.
But Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, alluded to the case last week during a public hearing on security threats, accusing the administration of adopting cumbersome counterterrorism policies that have made Americans more vulnerable to attack.
“Individuals who would have been previously removed from the battlefield by U.S. counterterrorism operations for attacking or plotting to attack against U.S. interests remain free because of self-imposed red tape,” Rogers said.
He added that the new constraints on drone strikes are “endangering the lives of Americans at home and our military overseas in a way that is frustrating to our allies and frustrating to those of us who engage in the oversight of our classified activities.”
Al-Qaeda’s core group in Pakistan is closely tied to militant organizations that have carried out cross-border assaults against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The CIA has carried out hundreds of strikes against the groups in Pakistan.
That core group is known to include at least one American, Adam Gadahn. But he is widely considered a spokesman and media figure for al-Qaeda, not an operative whose role in plotting would meet the criteria for placement on U.S. target lists. U.S. counterterrorism officials in recent months have also voiced concern about the potential for American recruits to join al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Yemen and Syria.
The prospect of again targeting an American — first reported Monday by the Associated Press — puts Obama in the position of having to revisit one of the most controversial issues of his presidency. Last year the White House acknowledged that four U.S. citizens had been killed in drone strikes during Obama’s time in office. Only one of them — Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. native who became a leader of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen — had been intentionally targeted.
The disclosure came amid mounting pressure on the administration from civil liberties groups that questioned the legality of killing an American without due process in court, as well as the secrecy surrounding such decisions. Officials at the American Civil Liberties Union renewed those objections Monday.
“The targeted killing of an American being considered right now shows the inherent danger of a killing program based on vague and shifting legal standards, which has made it disturbingly easy for the government to operate outside the law,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project. “This new report comes as the administration continues to fight against even basic transparency about the thousands of people who have died in this lethal program, let alone accountability for the wrongful killings of U.S. citizens.”
Spokesmen for the White House, CIA and Justice Department declined to comment.
In a speech last May, Obama defended the government’s authority to kill Americans accused of plotting with al-Qaeda but said doing so was a measure of last resort that should face special scrutiny from the Justice Department.
“The targeting of any American raises constitutional issues that are not present in other strikes,” Obama said. But he also said that when a U.S. citizen “goes abroad to wage war against America” and can’t be captured, “his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.”
The policies Obama approved last year allow counterterrorism strikes beyond active war zones only when the target is thought to pose an imminent and continuing threat to U.S. persons and when there is a “near certainty” of no civilian casualties.
There has been no indication from administration officials that the guidelines imposed new constraints on targeting Americans, other than requiring a ruling from the Justice Department, which officials said was done before Awlaki was killed in 2011.
So it is unclear what Rogers was referring to in his remark on “self-imposed red tape.” At the same hearing, he cited “a growing risk aversion within our intelligence agencies as al-Qaeda has morphed and spread throughout Yemen, Syria, the Levant and Africa.” A spokesman for Rogers declined to elaborate on his comments.
Beyond the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan, the United States has also carried out strikes in Yemen and Somalia. The latter involve the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, which operates Predator and Reaper remotely piloted aircraft from a base in Djibouti.
Karen De Young and Julie Tate contributed to this report.