NEW YORK — 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.
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.
The memo stated 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.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan released the memo, portions of which were blacked out, after the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking any documents in which Justice Department lawyers had discussed the highly classified "targeted-killing" program. The appeals court ordered the memo disclosed after noting that President Barack Obama and other senior government officials had commented publicly on the subject.