WASHINGTON (CBS) -- The rules on when the government can use drone attacks to kill American citizens aren't as strict as previously believed. CBS News has confirmed the authenticity of justice department a memo laying out when the president can authorize such attacks.
The White House is vigorously defending a justice department memo which says the administration can use drones to attack and kill American citizens working with terrorists. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says, "These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise."
The memo, originally obtained by NBC News, says killing a U.S. citizen who is a "senior operational leader in Al-Qaeda or an associated force" is lawful under three conditions:
- The suspect is engaged in planning operations to kill Americans even if no specific attack is imminent.
- It's not possible to -capture- the suspect before the attack.
- And the operation follows applicable laws and war principles.
But there is a concern among many on Capitol Hill that the decision removes the constitutional rights of American terror suspects to a trial by jury. And Tuesday, the White House press corps pushed Obama officials on the issue. Carney says, "Again, I would point you to the ample judicial precedence to the idea that someone who takes up arms against the United States, in a war against the United States, is an enemy and therefore can be targeted accordingly."
So far there is only one known case of an American being targeted with a drone strike. Anwar Al-Awlaki was killed at an Al Qaeda base in Yemen in 2011.
Congress requested the memo in order to get a better understanding of the government's drone policies. Congressional members will get their own chance to question an administration official tomorrow when John Brennan heads to Capitol Hill for his confirmation hearing to become the next head of the CIA. He is considered the architect of the drone strike program.