Khaled Abdullah / Reuters file
Tribesmen examine the rubble of a building in southeastern Yemen where American teenager Abdulrahmen al-Awlaki and six suspected al-Qaida militants were killed in a U.S. drone strike on Oct. 14, 2011. Al-Awlaki, 16, was the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in a similar strike two weeks earlier.
National Investigative Correspondent, NBC News
A confidential Justice Department memo concludes that the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida or “an associated force” -- even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.
The 16-page memo, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News, provides new details about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s most secretive and controversial polices: its dramatically increased use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects, including those aimed at American citizens, such as the September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were U.S. citizens who had never been indicted by the U.S. government nor charged with any crimes.
Michael Isikoff, national investigative correspondent for NBC News, talks with Rachel Maddow about a newly obtained, confidential Department of Justice white paper that hints at the details of a secret White House memo that explains the legal justifications for targeted drone strikes that kill Americans without trial in the name of national security.
“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 U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.
Instead, it says, an “informed, high-level” official of the U.S. government may determine that the targeted American has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The memo does not define “recently” or “activities.”
As in Holder’s speech, the confidential memo lays out a three-part test that would make targeted killings of American lawful: In addition to the suspect being an imminent threat, capture of the target must be “infeasible, and the strike must be conducted according to “law of war principles.” But the memo elaborates on some of these factors in ways that go beyond what the attorney general said publicly. For example, it states that U.S. officials may consider whether an attempted capture of a suspect would pose an “undue risk” to U.S. personnel involved in such an operation. If so, U.S. officials could determine that the capture operation of the targeted American would not be feasible, making it lawful for the U.S. government to order a killing instead, the memo concludes.
The undated memo is entitled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force.” It was provided to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees in June by administration officials on the condition that it be kept confidential and not discussed publicly.
Although not an official legal memo, the white paper was represented by administration officials as a policy document that closely mirrors the arguments of classified memos on targeted killings by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides authoritative legal advice to the president and all executive branch agencies. The administration has refused to turn over to Congress or release those memos publicly -- or even publicly confirm their existence. A source with access to the white paper, which is not classified, provided a copy to NBC News.
The completeness of the administration’s public accounts of its legal arguments was also sharply criticized last month by U.S. Judge Colleen McMahon in response to a lawsuit brought by the New York Times and the ACLU seeking access to the Justice Department memos on drone strikes targeting Americans under the Freedom of Information Act. McMahon, describing herself as being caught in a “veritable Catch-22,” said she was unable to order the release of the documents given “the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for the conclusion a secret.”
In her ruling, McMahon noted that administration officials “had engaged in public discussion of the legality of targeted killing, even of citizens.” But, she wrote, they have done so “in cryptic and imprecise ways, generally without citing … any statute or court decision that justifies its conclusions.”
In one passage in Holder’s speech at Northwestern in March, he alluded – without spelling out—that there might be circumstances where the president might order attacks against American citizens without specific knowledge of when or where an attack against the U.S. might take place.
“The Constitution does not require the president to delay action until some theoretical end-stage of planning, when the precise time, place and manner of an attack become clear,” he said.