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Can drone strikes target US citizens? Critics say rules are vague.

Criticism of the leaked Justice Department document – which allows for drone strikes against top level terrorists who are US citizens – is piling up from both the right and left, with critics charging that its language is too permissive.

By Staff Writer / February 5, 2013

This undated U.S. Air Force handout image shows a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. A leaked government memo addresses the killing of American citizens as part of its controversial drone campaign against al Qaeda.

Lt Col Leslie Pratt/US Air Force/Reuters/Handout



A newly-leaked Justice Department memo detailing Obama administration rules for drone strikes on terrorists who are US citizens is drawing criticism Tuesday from across the political spectrum. It’s sure to be a central topic in the Senate on Thursday, when White House official John Brennan, who’s helped run the drone program, faces questions in his nomination hearing to be the next director of the CIA. 

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The central aspect of the memo that critics find troubling is its vagueness. The document outlines loose definitions of which citizens qualify as top terrorists, the circumstances under which they pose an “imminent” threat to the US, and when it’s not feasible to simply capture them.

“The takeaway is that the Obama administration took a process that is supposed to constrain the president within the law’s confines ... and then qualified those constraints so drastically that it would be more honest to acknowledge that neither imminence nor infeasible capture are really required,” writes Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic, a longtime opponent of the secret drone program.

First, the basics: the 16-page memo was obtained by NBC News and published on its website. It appears to be an unclassified Justice paper summarizing a longer, classified Office of Legal Counsel official finding on when it is – and isn’t – legal for US security officials to target US citizens suspected of working with Al Qaeda.

That classified memo, in turn, was drawn up prior to the 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric born in New Mexico.

The paper obtained by NBC was apparently meant to be used to brief members of Congress. It outlines a three-part test for when US citizens might end up in their own nation’s cross-hairs.

First, they must be senior members of Al Qaeda. Second, they must pose an imminent threat of violent attack against the US. Third, it must be infeasible for US or allied forces to capture the individual in question.

The catch here is that when it comes to defining these terms, “the government is using its own dictionary,” according to Margaret Hartmann of New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer blog.

All that’s required, under the memo’s wording, is for a well-informed top official of the US government to decide that the person in question is a top terrorist. As for “imminent,” that does not mean “about to happen” in this case. It means only that the alleged terrorist must have recently been involved in activities posing a threat of violent attack and that there is no evidence they’ve renounced those activities.


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