The secret U.S. government memo outlining the justification for the use of drones to kill American terror suspects abroad was released by court order Monday, yielding the most detailed, inside look yet at the legal underpinnings of the Obama administration’s program of “targeted killings.”
The 41-page memo — whose contents had previously been summarized and released piecemeal — was heavily redacted for national security reasons, with several entire pages and other passages whited out.
But it argues among other things that a targeted killing of a U.S. citizen is permissible under a 2001 law passed by Congress soon after 9/11. That law empowered the president to use force against organizations that planned and committed the attacks.
“The release of the memo will allow the public to better assess the lawfulness of the government’s targeted killing policy and the implications of that policy,” said Jameel Jaffer, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who argued for release of the memo. “Despite the release of this memo, the public still knows scandalously little about who the government is killing and why.”
He said the memo contains the first formal acknowledgment by the government that the CIA is involved in the program.
The July 2010 memo was written by a Justice Department official who is now a federal appeals court judge. It was released after a yearlong legal battle by The New York Times and the ACLU.
The memo specifically provided the legal justification for the September 2011 killing in Yemen of Anwar Al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader and one-time cleric at a Virginia mosque who had been born in the United States, and another U.S. citizen, Samir Khan, who edited al-Qaida’s online magazine. An October 2011 strike also killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, al-Awlaki’s teenage son and also a U.S. citizen.
Al-Awlaki had been involved in an unsuccessful attack against the U.S. 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 certain circumstances to a U.S. citizen who is part of the forces of an enemy organization.