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Brennan nod exposes drone strategy

| Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, 8:32 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Obama's plan to install his counterterrorism adviser as director of the CIA has opened the administration to new scrutiny over the targeted-killing policies it has fought to keep hidden from the public.

The administration's refusal to provide details about one of the most controversial aspects of its drone campaign — strikes on U.S. citizens abroad — has emerged as a potential source of opposition to CIA nominee John Brennan, who faces a Senate confirmation hearing scheduled for Thursday.

The secrecy surrounding that policy was punctured on Monday with the disclosure of a Justice Department “white paper” that spells out the administration's case for killing Americans accused of being al-Qaida operatives.

The white paper, which was first reported by NBC News, concludes that the United States can lawfully kill one of its own citizens overseas if it determines that the person is a “senior, operational leader” of al-Qaida or one of its affiliates and poses an imminent threat.

But the 16-page document allows for an elastic interpretation of those concepts and does not require that the target be involved in a specific plot, because al-Qaida is “continually involved in planning terrorist attacks against the United States.”

The timing of the leak appeared aimed at intensifying pressure on the White House to disclose more-detailed legal memos that the paper summarizes — and at putting Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, on the defensive for his appearance on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the intelligence committee, said Brennan's level of influence and the timing of his nomination have given lawmakers leverage that they lacked in previous efforts to seek details from the White House.

Brennan “is the architect of the administration's counterterrorism policy,” Wyden said. “If the Congress doesn't get answers to these questions now, it's going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get them in the future.”

The paper does not spell out who might qualify as an “informed, high-level official” able to determine whether an American overseas is a legitimate target. It avoids specifics on a range of issues.

The document's emphasis on “senior, operational,” which appear together 16 times, helps to explain the careful phrasing the administration employed in the single case in which it intentionally killed an American citizen in a counterterrorism strike.

Within hours after Anwar al-Awlaki's death in September 2011, White House officials described the U.S.-born cleric as “chief of external operations” for al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen.

The white paper, which was distributed confidentially to certain lawmakers last summer, doesn't indicate when the underlying Justice Department memos on targeted killings of Americans were completed.

As a result, it is unclear whether the memos were in place before the first apparent attempt to kill Awlaki in 2009.

Civil liberties groups challenged the white paper. “The parallels to the Bush administration torture memos are chilling,” said Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

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