NEW YORK (AP) - The secret U.S. government memo outlining the justification for the use of drones to kill American terror suspects abroad was released by court order Monday, yielding the most detailed, inside look yet at the legal underpinnings of the Obama administration's program of "targeted killings."
The 41-page memo - whose contents had previously been summarized and released piecemeal - was heavily redacted for national security reasons, with several entire pages and other passages missing.
But it argues among other things that a targeted killing of a U.S. citizen is permissible under a 2001 law passed by Congress soon after 9/11. That law empowered the president to use force against organizations that planned and committed the attacks.
A government memo claims a 2001 law permits the use of drones to kill American citizens who join enemies of the nation.
"The release of the memo will allow the public to better assess the lawfulness of the government's targeted killing policy and the implications of that policy," said Jameel Jaffer, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who argued for release of the memo. "Despite the release of this memo, the public still knows scandalously little about who the government is killing and why."
He said the memo contains the first formal acknowledgment by the government that the CIA is involved in the program.
The July 2010 memo was written by a Justice Department official who is now a federal appeals court judge. It was released after a yearlong legal battle by the New York Times and the ACLU.
The memo specifically provided the legal justification for the September 2011 killing in Yemen of Anwar Al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader and one-time cleric at a Virginia mosque who had been born in the United States, and another U.S. citizen, Samir Khan, who edited al-Qaida's Internet magazine. An October 2011 strike also killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, al-Awlaki's teenage son and also a U.S. citizen.
Al-Awlaki had been involved in an abortive attack against the U.S. and was planning other attacks from his base in Yemen, the memo said. It said the authority to use lethal force abroad may apply in certain circumstances to a U.S. citizen who is part of the forces of an enemy organization.
The memo said the Defense Department operation was being carried out against someone who was within the core of individuals against whom Congress had authorized the use of "necessary and appropriate" force.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York released the memo after the Times and the ACLU sued for any documents in which Justice Department lawyers had discussed the highly classified "targeted killing" program.
The appeals court ordered the memo disclosed after noting that President Barack Obama and other senior government officials had commented publicly on the subject.
David E. McCraw, vice president and assistant general counsel for the Times, called the memo "a critical addition to the public debate over targeted killings and should fuel a richer discussion of the legal and security issues that are at the heart of that debate."
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, responding to criticism from groups that complained that it took a court order to get the memo released, said the administration worked through the legal system "to produce a redacted document that protected national security interests while at the same time trying to live up to our commitment to transparency."
"In this case, I think even the groups that sharply criticized us would call this a win for transparency," Earnest said.