UPDATE: The White House was forced to respond today to the memo after being peppered with questions about the legality of unilaterally targeting American citizens abroad.
Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted that President Obama “takes his responsibility in conducting the war against al Qaeda as authorized by Congress in a way that’s fully consistent with our constitution and all the applicable laws.”
Referring to drones as “remotely piloted aircraft,” Carney explained that “we conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats, to stop plots, prevent future attacks and again, save American lives.”
“These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise,” he added.
The spokesman cited a March 2012 speech at the University of Chicago delivered by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who argued that, “under generations-old legal principles and Supreme Court decisions, U.S. citizenship alone does not make a leader of an enemy force immune from being targeted.” The White House reportedly used this legal framework to target and kill al-Awlaki.
Carney also shared how the White House views the definition of the word “imminent.”
“What you have in general with al Qaeda senior leadership is a continuing process of…plotting attacks against the United States and American citizens,” he said.
– End Update –
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says there was no effort by the Obama administration to conceal its view that it is appropriate to target and kill Americans who are members of terrorist outfits overseas.
In a statement this morning, Feinstein said that the Department of Justice briefed her committee about its actions last summer. She added that now that the DOJ memo explaining the legality of its actions is available to the public, “the American people can review and judge the legality of these operations.”
“The administration has also described its legal analysis in speeches by the Attorney General and several senior officials during the past two years,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein also seemed to back up the White House’s assertion that it did no wrong by going after al-Awlaki, saying that he was “actively plotting and recruiting others to kill Americans until the time of his death in Yemen.”
NBC News broke the news yesterday that “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 abroad, 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.
The report also notes that President Obama’s counterrorism adviser, John Brennan, will participate Thursday in his confirmation hearing to become the next CIA Director. The report describes Brennan as “a key architect of the drone campaign,” and surmises that he’ll face tough questioning about the DOJ memo from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike.