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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is mulling whether to use a drone strike to kill a U.S. citizen in Pakistan, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday.
Reports that CIA drones were watching an American member of al Qaeda allegedly planning terrorist attacks were first published by The Associated Press on Monday. But the press agency did not say the country in which the target was located.
Speaking to NBC News on Tuesday, the officials would not give any details of the target but said it was in a tribal region of western Pakistan.
Two U.S. intelligence officials -- one current, one former -- told NBC News that the U.S. citizen who may be targeted for a drone attack is a member of al Qaeda Central, the core terrorist group headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden.
Some experts had suggested the U.S. citizen was part of one of several al Qaeda affiliates, operating along the Afghanistan - Pakistan border. It is not, said the former official. "He's standard al Qaeda operating in Pakistan," he said.
The officials said the White House has not yet given the order to launch.
The possible drone strike has been the subject of an intense debate at the White House. President Obama announced last May he wanted to shift all lethal drone strikes from the CIA to the military, but that plan would not be possible inside Pakistan.
This is because the U.S. has a long-standing agreement with Pakistan saying military strikes of any kind inside its borders are prohibited. Since 2004 the CIA has conducted such strikes against suspected terrorist targets but the strikes have not been publicly acknowledged by the White House.
However, U.S. officials told NBC News that this policy would not prohibit the CIA from conducting such strikes against Americans or other potential terrorist targets.
If there is clear evidence the target presents a clear and imminent threat to Americans or the nation's interest the CIA could be ordered to launch a lethal strike.
The Obama administration publicly acknowledged for the first time last year that the United States had killed four American citizens with drone strikes during counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Pakistan.
In a letter to congressional leaders in September 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that since 2009, the United States had “specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen,” Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Muslim cleric who was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Al-Awlaki masterminded a plan to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
But the letter also acknowledged that the United States was ”further aware” of three other U.S. citizens who had been killed, though not specifically targeted, ”in such U.S. counterterrorism operations”: Samir Khan, Abdulrahmn al-Awlaki (Anwar al-Awlaki’s son), and Jude Kenan Mohammed.