In 'Drone Memo,' A Step Toward Transparency On Targeting Americans

On Monday, a federal court made public a long-secret memo that lays out the Obama administration's legal justification for killing an American citizen in a drone strike. The memo, which concerns the 2011 killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki, says that the man presented an imminent threat to the United States.

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From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. It's called the Drone Memo and the public can now read it, at least parts of it. Today, a federal appeals court released the government's legal justification for the drone strike that targeted an American citizen. His name was Anwar al Awlaki, a radical cleric killed in Yemen in 2011. NPR's Carrie Johnson has more on the document.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Drone Memo had been one of the government's most closely guarded secrets, and here's why - it helps to answer how the Obama administration decided it could kill an American citizen without charges or trial. Jameel Jaffer is deputy legal director of the ACLU.

JAMEEL JAFFER: It's hard to imagine a broader claim of authority on the part of the government.

JOHNSON: Jaffer sued for the documents release. The 41-page memo focuses on radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al Awlaki. It described him as an operational leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula saying he plotted attacks against Americans and recruited terrorist to his cause. The document concluded that targeting him with a drone would not violate U.S. murder or conspiracy laws or run afoul of Awlaki's due process rights. But after reading the memo, Jaffer says he still has some major questions about the targeted killing program. Such as how much evidence the U.S. uses to determine its own citizens pose a threat and how hard the government must try to capture them before it tries killing them instead.

JAFFER: You have to make sure that you have a system in place that accounts for the possibility of abuse and I don't think we do. I think that this memo is a memo that could very easily be used by a future administration in ways that none of us would want it to be used.

JOHNSON: As many as 10 other Justice Department memos on drones remain secret. That's something Jaffer of the ACLU hopes to change.

JAFFER: Information about civilian casualties, information about the factual basis for this particular strike, all of that is still secret and, you know, we're going to continue to press for the release of that information.

JOHNSON: It's not clear if the courts will force the executive branch to reveal more secrets. Robert Chesney, a law professor at University of Texas, points out the appeals court allowed the government to hide details about Awlaki's involvement with al-Qaida and U.S. cooperation with Yemen.

ROBERT CHESNEY: It's like everything else that's happened in the legal battle since 9/11, it's going to be a really long and detailed process and we're just in the slow middle of it right now.

JOHNSON: A slow middle that will last long after President Obama leaves office. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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