By MICHAEL D. SHEAR and SCOTT SHANE
Published: February 6, 2013
WASHINGTON — The White House on Wednesday directed the Justice Department to release to the two Congressional Intelligence Committees classified documents discussing the legal justification for killing, by drone strikes and other means, American citizens abroad who are considered terrorists.
The White House announcement appears to refer to a long, detailed 2010 memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel justifying the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who had joined Al Qaeda in Yemen. He was killed in a C.I.A. drone strike in September 2011. Members of Congress have long demanded access to the legal memorandum.
The decision to release the legal memo to the Intelligence Committees came under pressure, two days after a bipartisan group of 11 senators joined a growing chorus asking for more information about the legal justification for targeted killings, especially of Americans.
The announcement also came on the eve of the confirmation hearing scheduled for Thursday afternoon for John O. Brennan, President Obama’s choice to be director of the C.I.A., who has been the chief architect of the drone program as Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser.
Critics accused Mr. Obama of hypocrisy for keeping the legal opinions on targeted killing secret, noting that in 2009 he had ordered the public release of the classified memos governing C.I.A. interrogations under President George W. Bush. Administration officials replied that the so-called enhanced interrogations had been stopped, while drone strikes continue.
Until Wednesday, the administration had refused to even officially acknowledge the existence of the documents, which have been reported about in the press. This week, NBC News obtained an unclassified, shorter “white paper” that detailed some of the legal analysis about killing a citizen and was apparently derived from the classified Awlaki memorandum. The paper said the United States could target a citizen if he was a senior operational leader of Al Qaeda involved in plots against the country and if his capture was not feasible.