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US memo justifies drone kills even with patchy intelligence

Feb. 5, 2013 8:56 A.M. (Updated: Feb. 5, 2013 8:56 A.M.)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The US government has authorized the killing of American citizens as part of its controversial drone campaign against al-Qaida even without intelligence that such Americans are actively plotting to attack a US target, according to a Justice Department memo.

The unclassified memo, first obtained by NBC News, argues that drone strikes are justified under American law if a targeted US citizen had "recently" been involved in "activities" posing a possible threat and provided that there is no evidence suggesting the individual "renounced or abandoned" such activities.

The document was disclosed as a bipartisan group of US senators called on the Obama administration to release to Congress "any and all" legal opinions laying out the government's understanding of what legal powers the president has to deliberately kill American citizens.

The senators who signed the letter, including members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the administration's cooperation would "help avoid an unnecessary confrontation that could affect the Senate's consideration of nominees for national security purposes."

Obama has nominated John Brennan, his White House counterterrorism adviser, who defends drone strikes, to lead the CIA.

An Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on the nomination is scheduled for Thursday, and Brennan is likely to face questioning on drone policy.

One national security official said the leak of the Justice Department memo may have been timed to blunt such congressional demands for the release of additional, possibly classified, documents relating to the US use of drones.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a statement on Tuesday said she had been calling on the administration to release legal analyses related to the use of drones for more than a year.

Feinstein said the document published by NBC had been provided to congressional committees last June on a confidential basis, and that her committee is seeking additional documents, which are believed to remain classified.

In the unclassified Justice Department paper posted by NBC on its website, the authors laid out three conditions that the executive branch should meet before a drone strike is ordered.
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