The Obama administration justified using drones to kill Americans suspected of terrorism overseas by citing the war against al-Qaida and by saying a surprise attack against an American in a foreign land would not violate the laws of war, according to a previously secret government memorandum released Monday.
The memo provided legal justification for the September 2011 killing in Yemen of Anwar Al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader who had been born in the United States, and another U.S. citizen, Samir Khan. An October 2011 strike also killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, al-Awlaki’s teenage son and also a U.S. citizen.
The memo, written by a Justice Department official, said the killing of al-Awlaki was justified under a law passed by Congress soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The law empowered the president to use force against organizations that planned, authorized and committed the attacks.
The memo also stated that the Defense Department operation was being carried out against someone who was within the core of individuals against whom Congress had authorized the use of “necessary and appropriate” force. It said the killing was justified as long as it was carried out in accord with applicable laws of war.
Al-Awlaki had been involved in an abortive attack against the United States and was planning other attacks from his base in Yemen, the memo said. It said the authority to use lethal force abroad may apply in appropriate circumstances to a U.S. citizen who is part of the forces of an enemy organization.
U.S. officials considered al-Awlaki to be an inspirational leader of al-Qaida, and they have also linked him to the planning and execution of several attacks targeting American and Western interests, including a 2009 attempt on Christmas Day on a Detroit-bound airliner.
The memo’s release follows a decision by the Obama administration not to appeal the 2nd Circuit ruling calling for it to be made public. Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said “The material being released is consistent with the administration’s previous statements on this issue.”
David E. McCraw, vice president and assistant general counsel for the Times, called the memo “a critical addition to the public debate over targeted killings and should fuel a richer discussion of the legal and security issues that are at the heart of that debate.”
This story was compiled using information provided by the Associated Press.