Nightly News   |  February 05, 2013

New details on drone strikes targeting American citizens

A secretive memo from the Justice Department, provided to NBC News, provides new information about the legal reasoning behind one of the Obama administration’s controversial policies. Now, John Brennan, Obama’s nominee for CIA director, is expected to face tough questions about drone strikes on Thursday when he appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee. NBC’s Michael Isikoff reports.

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>>> death by drone as a necessary evil of our post-9/11 world. the way we have to do business against an enemy we can't see, including, sometimes, americans who have switched sides. others see the use of drones by the united states as nothing more than execution by air, without due process, no court, no charges, no trial, and relatively little oversight. what's beyond dispute is this, drone attacks have become a huge weapon for this country. and this president has made unprecedented use of them. nbc news has obtained a government document that lays out the legal argument to justify the president's use of drones to kill al qaeda suspects, including, in some cases, u.s. citizens . our national investigative correspondent michael isikoff broke the story and has our report.

>> reporter: drones have been called president obama 's weapon of choice . during his four years as commander in chief, u.s. military and cia drone strikes have accelerated in an unprecedented pace. more than 400 cia strikes against targets in pakistan and yemen. eight times as many as under president bush .

>> they have been very precise, precision strikes against al qaeda , and their affiliates.

>> these strikes are legal. they are ethical. and they are wise.

>> reporter: but today, new questions about drone strikes targeting american citizens, including anwar al awlaki. born in new mexico, and killed in yemen in 2011 . he allegedly directed the so-called underwear bomber, who tried to blow up an airliner over detroit in 2009 . but awlaki was never charged with a crime. nbc news has obtained this confidential 16-page justice department memo that concludes lethal strikes against u.s. citizens , who are operational leaders of al qaeda , are a lawful act of national self-defense.

>> we only take these kinds of actions when there's an imminent threat , when capture is not feasible, and when we are confident that we're doing so in a way that's consistent with federal and international law .

>> reporter: but the memo appears to allow greater leeway than the administration is publicly acknowledged. it says an imminent threat does not require the united states to have clear evidence that a specific attack on u.s. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future. the aclu is challenging obama's drone policy, and is suing the u.s. government over awlaki's death, on behalf of his family.

>> it is a chilling document. it's, you know, it sets out the government's claimed authority to carry out the targeted killing of american citizens. but the limits are really vague and elastic and it's easy to see how they could be manipulated.

>> reporter: nbc news analyst michael lighter, a former counterterrorism official says it reflects the reality of the murky war against al qaeda in

>> the nature of intelligence is such that it really is unreasonable to expect that the u.s. will always have specific evidence about a plot. instead, this allows some flexibility, in that these senior leaders are assumed to consistently have been plotting.

>> reporter: the architect of the administration's drone policy is white house counterterrorism adviser john brennan , now the president's nominee to be cia director .

>> it's this surgical precision, the ability with laser-like focus to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al qaeda terrorist.

>> reporter: but his departing defense chief leon panetta , a former cia director , acknowledged this week, choosing targets for such strikes, killing by remote control, is never easy.

>> i remember when i first became director of the cia , and realized that i was making life and death decisions with regards to our operations. it doesn't come lightly.

>> reporter: a bipartisan group of senators is demanding more transparency about the drone strikes targeting americans. and they're expected to grill brennan about the subject on thursday, when he appears before the senate intelligence committee at his confirmation hearing to be the next cia director . brian?

>> michael isikoff who broke this story in our d.c. newsroom for us tonight. michael, thanks.