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Leaked Memo: How Obama Justifies Drone Killing of Americans

As President Obama gets increasing pressure from liberals to halt the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists — and civilians — overseas, NBC has obtained an internal Obama administration document that appears to cite the legal justification to kill even an American citizen if “an informed, high-level official” of the government decides that person is a terrorist.

The public and the media have been haranguing the Obama administration for years to explain how the White House justifies using the unmanned drones to kill in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Even the president’s most ardent supporters have a hard time justifying the drone strikes.

Occasionally, bits and pieces of the legal rationale have dribbled out, such as when Attorney General Eric Holder last March said the Constitution’s guarantee of “due process” before the government takes a life does not necessarily mean “judicial process” in national security situations.

In the undated 16-page memo, titled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operation Leader of al Qaeda or An Associated Force,” the administration argues that the killing of an American can be ordered even in the absence of an “active plot” to attack the United States.

According to some estimates, the CIA and the U.S. military have undertaken more than 300 drone strikes and killed about 2,500 people — many of them civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that from 2004 to 2013, CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed up to 3,461 people — up to 891 of them civilians.

Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said the memo was “a profoundly disturbing document.”

“It’s hard to believe that it was produced in a democracy built on a system of checks and balances,” he said. “It summarizes in cold legal terms a stunning overreach of executive authority — the claimed power to declare Americans a threat and kill them far from a recognized battlefield and without any judicial involvement.”

Last week, the U.N. announced that it will be conducting an investigation to determine if the controversial program is a violation of international law. At a news conference in London, Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, announced the inquiry, which will look into the impact of the targeted killing program on civilians, as well as the legal underpinnings.

“The central objective of the present investigation is to look at the evidence that drone strikes and other forms of remote targeted killing have caused disproportionate civilian casualties in some instances,” he said, “and to make recommendations concerning the duty of states to conduct thorough independent and impartial investigations into such allegations, with a view to securing accountability and reparation where things can be shown to have gone badly wrong with potentially grave consequences for civilians.”

The release of the internal memo comes at a bad time for President Obama, just as his counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday to be confirmed as the new director of the CIA.

Eight Democratic and three Republican senators, including some Intelligence Committee members, have written to the president, asking for the legal opinions authorizing the killing of Americans. They will find many of their answers in this internal document, likely leaked to NBC by a disgruntled member of the Obama administration.

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