Imam Anwar al-Awlaki

Muhammad ud-Deen, Associated Press

Memo details fatal drone attack on Al-Awlaki

  • Article by: Greg Miller
  • Washington Post
  • June 23, 2014 - 8:36 PM

– A federal court on Monday released a previously secret government memo outlining the legal justification for the 2011 killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and accused Al-Qaida operative, in a drone strike in Yemen.

The document was released under order of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York and provides the most detailed explanation to date for the legal reasoning behind Al-Awlaki’s killing. Its disclosure also represents a significant capitulation by the Obama administration, which fought for years to keep the memo — as well as many other aspects of its targeted killing program — secret from the public.

“We do not believe that [Al-Awlaki’s] U.S. citizenship imposes constitutional limitations that would preclude the contemplated lethal action” by the U.S. military or CIA, the memo concluded, clearing the way for a drone strike that would trigger intense legal and political debate.

Rights groups welcomed release of the 41-page memo.

“The release of this memo represents an overdue but nonetheless crucial step towards transparency,” said Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the ACLU, which along with the New York Times had filed Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to compel the government to release the July 2010 document. “The release of this memo will allow the public to better understand the scope and implications of the authority the government is claiming.”

Important sections of the Justice Department’s legal analysis were stripped from the version of the document released to the public.

Among the deleted portions were paragraphs that presumably explained why the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel determined that killing Al-Awlaki in a drone strike would not violate the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees due process to U.S. citizens accused of crimes.

Still, the memo provides previously unknown details about the reasoning behind one of the most controversial counterterrorism operations carried out by the U.S. government since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric born in New Mexico, was killed in a CIA drone attack in September 2011 after being linked to an Al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen that had mounted a series of terrorist plots against the United States. Among them was the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

The administration has acknowledged killing three other U.S. citizens in Yemen, including Al-Awlaki’s teenage son, in a separate strike a month after his father was killed. But only the elder Al-Awlaki was targeted intentionally, according to U.S. officials who have said the others were killed incidentally in strikes against other targets.

The memo includes a section devoted specifically to the legality of lethal operations carried out by the CIA, marking a rare instance in which the agency’s role in the drone program has been so formally acknowledged.

The broad outlines of the memo have been disclosed previously, including in a letter that Attorney General Eric Holder sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee saying that targeting a U.S. citizen was seen as a last resort but permissible as long as the person posed “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” and that capture was “not feasible.”

While acknowledging that killing a U.S. citizen carries “the risk of erroneous deprivation of a citizen’s liberty in the absence of sufficient process,” the memo argued that those considerations are overwhelmed when the target poses “a continued and imminent threat of violence or death” to other Americans.


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