By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010; A03
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair acknowledged Wednesday that government agencies may kill U.S. citizens abroad who are involved in terrorist activities if they are "taking action that threatens Americans."
Blair told members of the House intelligence committee that he was speaking publicly about the issue to reassure Americans that intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense "follow a set of defined policy and legal procedures that are very carefully observed" in the use of lethal force against U.S. citizens.
Blair's unusually frank remarks come as the issue of targeting Americans for lethal action has attracted more notice. As the United States steps up its campaign against suspected terrorists overseas, it has become more apparent that some extremists may be U.S. citizens.
The most prominent case to date is that of a U.S.-born cleric, Anwar al-Aulaqi, who lives in Yemen and has been linked to the Army major who allegedly shot and killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., in November, and to the Nigerian accused of attempting to bomb a Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas Day.
Aulaqi is a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an affiliate of the main al-Qaeda organization, and has been linked to the Fort Hood shooter as well as the Nigerian. He was thought to be meeting with regional al-Qaeda leaders at a compound in Yemen targeted by a Dec. 24 strike. He was not said to be the focus of the strike, and he was not killed. But U.S. officials said at the time that they thought he might have been killed.
"I just don't want Americans who are watching this to think that we are careless about endangering -- in fact, we're not careless about endangering American lives as we try to carry out the policies to protect most of the country," Blair said at the annual threat briefing before the panel. He did not specifically refer to the targeting of Aulaqi.
In response to questions from Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the panel's ranking Republican, Blair said: "We take direct action against terrorists in the intelligence community. If that direct action, we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that."
Hoekstra pressed for clarification of the policy, especially its threshold for targeting Americans for lethal action.
"The concern that I have today is that I'm not sure that . . . [it is] very well understood as to what you and the people in your organization can do when it comes to Americans who have joined the enemy," Hoekstra told Blair.
The director of national intelligence said the factors that "primarily" weigh on the decision to target an American include "whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans."