The lethal U.S. drone attack on American-born on al Qaeda-linked cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was authorized in a secret memorandum from the Justice department, according to administration officials.
A government source, who was briefed Friday, by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) confirmed the U.S. missile strike, which killed two other people in a car in Yemen, the media reported in Washington. The document was produced following a review of the legal issues raised by striking a U.S. citizen and involved senior lawyers from across the administration.
There was no dissent about the legality of killing Aulaqi, the officials said on condition of anonymity.
The Obama administration has faced a legal challenge and public criticism for targeting Aulaqi, who was born in New Mexico, because of constitutional protections afforded U.S. citizens.
The memorandum may represent an attempt to resolve, at least internally, a legal debate over whether a president can order the killing of U.S. citizens overseas as a counterterrorism measure.
The operation to kill Aulaqi involved CIA and military assets under CIA control. A former senior intelligence official said that the CIA would not have killed an American without such a written opinion.
A second American killed in Friday’s attack was Samir Khan, a driving force behind Inspire, the English-language magazine produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
An administration official said the CIA did not know Khan was with Aulaqi, but they also considered Khan a belligerent whose presence near the target would not have stopped the attack.
The Obama administration has spoken broadly about its authority to use military and paramilitary force against al-Qaeda and associated forces beyond “hot,” or traditional, battlefields such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Officials said that certain belligerents are not shielded because of their citizenship.
“As a general matter, it would be entirely lawful for the United States to target high-level leaders of enemy forces, regardless of their nationality, who are plotting to kill Americans both under the authority provided by Congress in its use of military force in the armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces as well as established international law that recognizes our right of self-defense,” an administration official said in a statement Friday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday said that the United States and its allies are safer after the killing of American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, but that al-Qaida remains a threat.
In a speech at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas Clinton said the U.S. and its allies will increase the pressure on al-Qaida, because despite recent successes against the group, it is still capable of carrying out attacks.
“Today we are all safer, but we recognize that the threat remains and Al Qaida does maintain the ability to plan and carry out attacks and that our vigilance is required,” she said.