Court releases memo justifying drone strike on US cleric

A New York court on Monday released an edited version of a secret government memo legally justifying a drone attack that killed a US citizen, radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen in 2011.

The federal appeals court released the document following a lawsuit from The New York Times and American Civil Liberties Union demanding to know the basis for the killing of three Americans.

So-called “targeted killings” are the leading tactic in the US war on suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, but activists say the assassination program is too secret and lacks legal limits.

Awlaki, a US-born preacher with a large Internet following, was killed in September 2011.

Officials described him as a “most significant risk” to the US and alleged he was a leader in the regional militant franchise known as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Dual Pakistani-American citizen Samir Khan, who edited Al-Qaeda’s English-language “Inspire” magazine, died with him.

Awlaki’s teenage son, Abdul Rahman, was killed in a separate US drone strike in Yemen in October 2011. None of the US citizens were ever charged with a crime.

The July 16, 2010 legal memo from the US Department of Justice justified Awlaki’s targeting on the grounds that he was an enemy leader whose capture, in Yemen, would have been “infeasible.”

As an AQAP leader his activities in Yemen posed “a continued and imminent threat” of violence to the United States, the memo said.

It described him as an “active, high-level leader of an enemy force who is continually involved in planning and recruiting for terrorist attacks.”

The 41-page classified document said the cleric was involved “in an abortive attack” in the United States and “continues to plot attacks intended to kill Americans” from Yemen.

His citizenship did not make him immune and the drone strike would “comply with international law,” it argued.

The memo also appeared to justify targeted killings even if a certain number of innocent civilians may be killed.

“Every effort” would be made to minimize civilian casualties and “the officer who launches the ordnance would be required to abort if he or she concludes that civilian casualties will be disproportionate.”

The Civil Liberties Union said the memo was proof that the US government “claims broad authority to kill American terrorism suspects without judicial process or geographic limitation.”

“We will continue to press for the release of other documents relating to the targeted-killing program,” said ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer.

“The drone program has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, including countless innocent bystanders, but the American public knows scandalously little about who is being killed and why.”

US officials defend drone strikes as carefully regulated, saying they have weakened Al-Qaeda’s core leadership and reduced the threat of attack on American soil.

The New York Times’ assistant general counsel David McCraw said the memo was a “critical addition to the public debate over targeted killings and should fuel a richer discussion of the legal and security issues that are at the heart of that debate.”

But Amnesty International said one memo fell “far short” of adequate transparency and legality, and demanded to know the legal basis for all drone strikes.

The London-based rights group said it wanted information about who has been killed in US strikes and why they were targeted.

“We know too little about the basis in international law for the deliberate use of lethal force in these hundreds of killings, let alone the evidentiary basis for targeting these individuals.”

There are no public statistics on the number or identities of those killed by the drone program, which began under President George W. Bush but which President Barack Obama has greatly expanded.

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates up to 3,743 people have died in Pakistan since 2004, up to 488 in “confirmed” strikes in Yemen and up to 24 in Somalia.


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