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Broader Justification Emerges Of When U.S. Can Kill Americans Who Join Al-Qaida

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American citizens who become leaders in al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations overseas and pose "an imminent threat" to Americans may be killed with drone strikes even when there's no evidence that they have specific plans to attack Americans or U.S. interests, according to a Justice Department memo that surfaced Monday.

NPR's Carrie Johnson tells our Newscast Desk that:

"The document, first obtained by NBC News, breaks some new ground. Even though top administration officials have discussed their legal reasoning for drone strikes before, the new white paper offers a broader definition of an imminent attack. The document says the U.S. doesn't need clear evidence of a specific attack to strike — something the ACLU calls chilling."

On Morning Edition, Carrie told host Steve Inskeep that Justice's definition of when an American poses an imminent threat and can be killed now appears to be "a little stretchy, like a rubber band." She said the memo also makes the case that the U.S. government "doesn't have to try all that hard to capture someone" if they are in another country and trying to grab them would be an "undue burden."

The Washington Post sums up the memo's significance this way:

"The document defines 'imminent threat' expansively, saying it does not have to be based on intelligence about a specific attack since such actions are being 'continually' planned by al-Qaida. 'In this context,' it says, 'imminence must incorporate considerations of the relevant window of opportunity' as well as possible collateral damage to civilians."

The memo was leaked as John Brennan, President Obama's nominee to be the next CIA director, prepares for his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday. Watch for him to face questions about the drone strike policy.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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