The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee is pressing Justice Department (DOJ) officials to release more details on the White House's guidelines for the use of armed drone strikes against U.S. citizens.
In a statement released Tuesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the panel is continuing to demand information on the actual legal opinions drafted by the Obama administration justifying the possible targeting of Americans by U.S. drones.
"Targeting a member of an enemy force who poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States is not unlawful. It is a lawful act of self defense," according to the DOJ memo.
The document does not carry legal weight, although administration officials told the network the document is similar to classified guidance developed by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
The white paper, which was first reported by NBC News on Monday, had been delivered to members of Feinstein's committee and their House counterparts last June, according to her statement.
"That analysis is now public and the American people can review and judge the legality of these operations ... [but] the committee continues to seek the actual legal opinions by the Department of Justice that provide details not outlined in this particular white paper."
In the white paper, DOJ officials cleared the strikes, arguing the United States is in a de facto "armed conflict" with al Qaeda and its affiliates, which gives the White House authority to use lethal military force against the group and its various factions across the globe.
The use of armed drones in U.S. counterterrorism missions, possibly against U.S. citizens accused of working with overseas terror groups, does not violate federal laws governing criminal procedure of Americans or the White House's longstanding ban on assassination, the white paper argues.
The drone strikes have played a key role in the Obama administration's increasingly aggressive counterterrorism campaign against al Qaeda. U.S. national security officials claim the strikes have decimated the terror group's top leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.
White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, who has been pegged to become the new CIA director, was one of the main architects of the administration's drone-centric counter-terror policy.
Aside from calling for the Justice Department's actual legal opinions on drone strikes, Feinstein's office also wants details on the department's decision to allow U.S. military and intelligence officials to target and kill U.S. citizen and suspected al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki.
Feinstein noted that there remain "significant questions" over the intelligence that led to al-Awlaki's placement on the CIA's so-called “kill list” and the actual drone strike in Yemen that killed him.
Al-Awlaki, a radical Islamic cleric who was also a Yemeni citizen, was suspected of being the head of operations for al Qaeda's Yemeni cell, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Along with his suspected ties to the al Qaeda faction in Yemen, al-Awlaki was also implicated in the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas, by Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, and the attempted 2011 Times Square bombing by Faisal Shahzad.
In 2010, al-Awlaki's father — with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union — attempted to sue the U. S. government after his son was placed on the CIA's targeted kill list.
For its part, the Justice Department concluded lethal operations against al-Awlaki and other suspected top-level al Qaeda leaders can occur if a three-part test is met, according to the department's white paper.
If a suspect can be proven to pose an imminent threat to U.S. national security and the ability to capture the individual is infeasible, a drone strike can be used, but only if that strike is conducted in line with the international laws of war.
Should those criteria be met, any U.S.-led "lethal operation" against suspected terrorist targets in foreign countries would be consistent with international legal norms regarding national sovereignty.
That said, a partner nation's government must grant permission to Washington for those drone strikes, if the attacks are justified by international law, according to Justice Department officials.