By Amie Parnes - 02/05/13 06:47 PM EST
The White House on Tuesday defended the guidelines for targeting Americans in drone strikes as "fully consistent” with the Constitution.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said it is President Obama’s responsibility to protect U.S. citizens “first and foremost.”
"[The strikes] are legal, they are ethical and they are wise."
The statements from Carney come the day after the leak of a white paper from the Department of Justice (DOJ) that outlines the legal basis for killing Americans overseas who are believed to be a threat. In the memo, Justice outlines a three-part test to determine whether a “lethal operation” can be carried out against an American who is a senior operational leader of a terrorist group.
The drone strikes against U.S. citizens have drawn fierce opposition from civil-liberties groups, who argue due process is being trampled in the name of national security.
Carney said Obama "understands the gravity of these issues" but believes it’s "entirely appropriate" to target the senior operational leaders of al Qaeda, regardless of their nation of origin. He said Congress has authorized "all necessary military force" to be used in the fight against al Qaeda, and that the president is acting under that authority.
Members of al Qaeda "have without question engaged in plots against the U.S.," Carney said. "That's a reality that the commander in chief has to confront."
Carney said the administration has reviewed the legal issues involved in the drone strikes and is continually reviewing the matter, but would not speculate how the issues might be considered in the future.
The DOJ memo obtained by NBC News provides a legal justification for the killing of cleric Anwar al-Awaki in Yemen in 2011. Al-Awlaki, a senior leader in al Qaeda who was an American citizen, was linked to multiple terrorist attacks.
Asked whether targeting Awlaki’s son was legitimate, Carney said he couldn’t speak to that matter.
"I am not going to talk about individual operations that may or may not have occurred," he said.
—This story was last updated at 2:17 p.m.