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U.S. justice memo gives broad legal rationale for targeted killings of Americans

Fighters from the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group MUJWA, pictured on Aug. 7, 2012. The U.S. is considering drone strikes against a similar terrorist group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, after four Americans were killed in a Libya attack last month.

STRINGER/REUTERS

A newly revealed Justice Department memo finds that U.S. citizens believed to be senior al-Qaeda operators may lawfully be killed, even if no intelligence shows they are actively plotting an attack.

The disclosure by NBC News, which posted a link to the white paper on its web page, comes amid rising controversy over U.S. use of drone strikes to kill al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistan and Yemen.

Among the most controversial were the Sept. 2011 killings in Yemen of Al-Qaeda operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, because they were US citizens who had never been charged with a crime.

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The white paper offers a more expansive definition of self-defense and imminent attack than those given publicly in the past by senior US officials, who have cited "the inherent right to self-defence" in defending the attacks.

"The condition that an operational leader present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future," the memo says.

Instead, an "informed, high-level" official could decide that the targeted individual posed "an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States" if he had "recently" engaged in such activities and there was no evidence he had renounced or abandoned them.

The memo also says the individual's capture must be infeasible, and can be considered so if capture posed an "undue risk" to U.S.personnel. The memo can be found here.

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