On Monday, a federal appeals court in New York made public a redacted version of the Obama administration’s legal justification for killing an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.
U.S. counterterror officials say Awlaki was a key leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the newly-released memo outlines the legal rationale for killing the New Mexico-born cleric. That document, which is embedded and annotated below, makes the case that Awlaki had become part of al Qaeda and that the legal authority for the war on terror — the so-called Authorization to Use Military Force — allowed the United States to kill him in a drone strike abroad.
While the memo, authored by the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, is specifically written to address the case of Awlaki, it may open the door to drone strikes against other Americans abroad engaged in terrorist activity. The memo held that Awlaki could be targeted in a strike as long as it was not possible to capture him, that posed an imminent threat to the United States, and that his killing was carried out in such a way that does not violate the laws of war.
U.S. officials claim that Awlaki, who had been popular preacher in the United States before leaving his home country, had morphed from a community imam into an operational terrorist, justifying his killing. Crucially, the version of the memo released omits intelligence that led the OLC to agree with the U.S. counterterror officials that Awlaki was actively plotting against the United States.
The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union sued for the document’s release under the Freedom of Information Act.