DOJ Paper: When It's OK To Kill Americans In Al-Qaida

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Justice Department analysis says the U.S. has the right to carry out targeted killings of Americans who are senior operatives of al-Qaida or affiliated groups — even if they are not known to be actively working on a plot.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama's administration is trying to work out its legal rational for a controversial policy. It's the killing of American citizens suspected of terrorism. A newly obtained Justice Department document lays out a rational. That document argues the United States has authority to target Americans who are senior al-Qaida figures even without evidence they are about to carry out a specific attack.

NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to talk about this document. Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. So administration officials have talked in speeches about transparency and the rule of law, but they haven't actually said what they mean or how that's supposed to work. What does this document add?

JOHNSON: Steve, this document, which was obtained by NBC News, Michael Isikoff at NBC News, last night, seems to add two important new details. One is the government has said that it's going to have the power to target people who may be about to conduct an imminent attack. But now we know, as a result of this memo, that its definition of imminent is a little stretchy, like a rubber band, in that it does not in its view need intelligence indicating someone is about to carry out an attack right away in order to conduct a drone strike against them.

Very, very controversial. The other thing that we've learned is that the government has always talked about the possibility of killing or capturing someone. And this memo seems to indicate that the government doesn't have to try all that hard to capture someone so long. As the capture poses an undue burden on the U.S., the U.S. doesn't have to go that route.

INSKEEP: And we should mention, none of this legal reasoning is theoretical. There are actual cases in recent years where they United States has launched drone strikes against American citizens abroad.

JOHNSON: Yes. We know of one for certain, the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in Yemen in September, 2011. He was with a gentlemen named Samir Khan, who was also a U.S. citizen, who died alongside Awlaki. And then a few weeks later, Awlaki's young son, teenage son, was also killed in Yemen. So we know of three Americans who have died at the end of drone strikes.

INSKEEP: Okay. So this 16-page memo gives the Justice Department's legal rational. It says we don't have to have evidence of a specific strike that's about to happen. Being part of al-Qaida, a senior figure in al-Qaida, is enough. What are civil rights groups saying about this? They sued over the administration policy.

JOHNSON: The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights have both sued over the Awlaki and Khan attacks and they've also tried to demand the government give out more information about these programs, which it's been very difficult to get for civil rights groups and members of Congress. The ACLU said last night this was disturbing and chilling. They're particularly offended that this memo indicates there's virtually no role for the U.S. court system, which they believe means there's virtually no oversight of these programs.

INSKEEP: Why is this memo coming out now, Carrie Johnson?

JOHNSON: We don't know for certain, Steve, but something else happened yesterday that's very interesting. Eleven senators, both Democrats and Republicans, wrote to the president demanding that he turn over the still secret OLC, Office of Legal Council, memos from the Justice Department in connection with the Awlaki attacks, and they indicated they could complicate the president's nomination to lead the CIA and the Pentagon.

And then within a few hours this NBC News story broke.

INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: She's our justice correspondent.

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