In response to a federal court order, the Obama administration has released a key Justice Department legal memo on U.S. targeted killing operations. The July 2010 memo wasthe basis for the government’s extrajudicial killing of an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, in 2011. In the memo, the government claims broad authority to kill American terrorism suspects without judicial process or geographic limitation.

The U.S. government earlier this year lost a freedom-of-information lawsuit filed by the New York Times and American Civil Liberties Union calling for the release of the memo, drafted by the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel. It provided the legal basis for the government’s killing of three Americans in Yemen in 2011: Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, and Samir Khan.

The Department of Justice decided against appealing the ruling amid pressure from congressional lawmakers, who were holding up the nomination of David Barron, the attorney who drafted the memo.

A “white paper” summary of the document was leaked to the media in early 2013. The memo argues that because capturing al-Awlaki was infeasible and he posed an “imminent threat” to the U.S. that a drone strike could be carried out.

Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, said the release of the memo would shed new light on the government’s drone program. “There are few questions more important than the question of when the government has the authority to kill its own citizens,” he said. “This memo’s release will allow the public to better understand the scope and implications of the authority the government is claiming. We will continue to press for the release of other documents relating to the targeted killing program, including other legal memos and documents relating to civilian casualties.”

Parts of the memo remain redacted to protect “intelligence sources and methods,” with just 31 of 41 pages released and substantial portions blacked out.

The court also released a less-redacted version of the opinion it issued in April. The previously redacted text orders the government to submit other OLC memos to the district court for review (and possible release), and observes that neither the CIA’s role in al-Awlaki’s killing nor the fact that the killing took place in Yemen is still a legitimate secret.


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