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White House to share secret drone guidelines

Photo: AFP

The White House has said that it will allow certain US lawmakers access to a secret document outlining the use of lethal drone strikes against Americans who conspire with al Qaeda, as the debate over the use of unmanned aircraft heats up.


President Barack Obama has directed the Justice Department to share a secret document which details the circumstances under which drones can be used to kill Americans in a foreign country with some US senators and congressmen.

Members of the Senate and House intelligence committees will have access to a document that is expected to provide the legal justification for forgoing a trial and exterminating Americans who conspire with al Qaeda, a White House official said on Wednesday.

The disclosure to certain lawmakers comes after an unclassified, shorter “white paper” analyzing the possible killing of citizens was leaked to NBC News, and a day before the confirmation hearing of John Brennan, Obama’s pick to head the CIA.

Obama aides have argued that killing al Qaeda suspects including US citizens  in hotspots like Yemen complies with US law, even when no intelligence links the militants to specific plots targeting America.

The secret document will likely provide the rationale behind the controversial September 2011 drone strike that killed US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was a presumed top-tier member of al Qaeda, but had never been charged with a crime.

The document leaked earlier this week said it was legal for the US to use “lethal force” against a US citizen who is “a senior operation leader of al Qaeda” or its allies, and who posed “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States”.

Some civil liberties groups were dismayed by the white paper, saying that Obama was assuming the power to kill US citizens without presenting evidence to a judge or even letting the courts know about a potential attack.

Brennan in the hot seat

Some senators had warned they would use Brennan's confirmation hearing as leverage to force the administration to share more information on the legal and constitutional grounds for lethal strikes on US citizens.

According to New York Times, the White House until Wednesday had refused to even officially acknowledge the existence of the secret documents.

Observers said the disclosure to lawmakers should help Brennan in his confirmation to lead the US spy agency. The White House counterterrorism chief will likely face tough questions about a spike in the use of drones over the past four years.

The White House has defended the beefed-up drone programme, while acknowledging it has also led to the deaths of innocent civilians.

Charlottesville joins debate

News of the secret document providing the legal grounds for drone strikes targeting Americans has reignited a prickly debate about US citizens who have plotted terror against fellow countrymen.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, one of the most vocal lawmakers demanding more information from the administration, told NBC this week: “Every American has the right to know when their government believes that it is allowed to kill them”.

The debate has also expanded far from the halls of Washington. On Monday, the city of Charlottesville in the southern state of Virginia passed a resolution restricting the use of drones –a first for a city in the United States.

US News & World Report said that the Charlottesville City Council did not completely ban unmanned aircraft in the city’s airspace, but passed a resolution that pledges that the city will not use information obtained by drones in court.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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