The U.S. government has the right to order the killing of American citizens overseas if they are senior al-Qaeda leaders who pose an imminent terrorist threat and cannot reasonably be captured, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Monday.

“Any decision to use lethal force against a United States citizen — even one intent on murdering Americans and who has become an operational leader of al-Qaeda in a foreign land — is among the gravest that government leaders can face,” Holder said in a speech at Northwestern University’s law school in Chicago. “The American people can be — and deserve to be — assured that actions taken in their defense are consistent with their values and their laws.”

Holder’s discussion of lethal force against U.S. citizens did not mention any individual by name, but his address was clearly animated by the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior figure in al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate. Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September.

Since that operation, the Obama administration has faced calls to explain the legal framework behind its decision to target Awlaki and to release at least portions of a classified memorandum by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that contains its evidence, reasoning and conclusions.

Holder’s speech represented the administration’s most elaborate public explanation to date for targeted killings. And it followed a prolonged internal debate about how to inform the public about one of the most extraordinary decisions a government can take without explicitly acknowledging the ongoing classified drone program.

Read More at The Washington Post By Peter Finn and Sari Horwitz, The Washington Post

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