The U.S. intelligence community policy on killing American citizens who have joined al Qaeda requires first obtaining high-level government approval, a senior official disclosed to Congress on Wednesday.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair said in each case a decision to use lethal force against a U.S. citizen must get special permission.
“We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community,” he said. “If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that.”
He also said there are criteria that must be met to authorize the killing of a U.S. citizen that include “whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans. Those are the factors involved.”
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House intelligence committee, asked Mr. Blair about the policy of targeting American citizens at a hearing. It was the first time there was public discussion about one of the most sensitive U.S. counterterrorism policies.
Mr. Blair’s remarks follow a report in The Washington Post last week that disclosed President Obama had personally authorized a Christmas eve drone attack against Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen in Yemen who is chief cleric for the terrorist group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Awlaki is thought to have survived the attack.
Al-Awlaki was in contact with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried and failed to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.
Al-Awlaki was a former imam at a Falls Church, Va., mosque where Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the officer accused of killing 13 of his fellow service members at Fort Hood on Nov. 5, is said to have attended sermons and sought his advice over e-mail.
In recent years al-Awlaki has developed a following on the Internet for his English-language jihadist rants. This is a new development for al Qaeda because most of its Web propagandists write in Arabic.
Another American al Qaeda operative recently outed to the press is David Coleman Headley. Last month, the FBI charged Mr. Headley with participating in the jihadist rampage in Mumbai in 2008 and plotting to attack the offices of the Danish newspaper that in 2005 published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Mr. Hoekstra made an indirect reference to al-Awlaki, who was born in Las Cruces, N.M., in 1971.
“So there is a framework and a policy for what’s hypothetically a radical born cleric … who’s living outside of the United States, there’s a clear path as to when this person may be engaging in free speech overseas and when he may have moved into recruitment or when he may have moved into actual coordinating and carrying out or coordinating attacks against the United States?”
Mr. Blair responded that he would rather not discuss the details of this criteria in open session, but he assured: “We don’t target people for free speech. We target them for taking action that threatens Americans or has resulted in it.”
He added, “The reason I went this far in open session is I just don’t want other Americans who are watching to think that we are careless about endangering … lives at all. But we especially are not careless about endangering American lives, as we try to carry out the policies to protect most of the country and I think we ought to go into details in closed session.”
It is not known how many American al Qaeda members have been killed in the war on terrorism. One American, Seattle-born jihadist Ruben Shumpert, was killed by a U.S. missile strike in Somalia. Shumpert was a known Islamist wanted by federal authorities on gun charges.