The White House on Tuesday walked back its assertion that the military will never target U.S. citizens in overseas operations.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters earlier in the day that “no American citizen will ever be targeted” when asked whether the Trump administration would deliberately go after U.S.-born people with ties to extremists.
The statement represented a break with policy set under the Obama administration.
But a White House official later clarified that “U.S. policy regarding the possible targeting of American citizens has not changed.”
The official cited former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderChristie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group Democrats look to state courts as redistricting battle heats up On The Trail: Census kicks off a wild redistricting cycle MORE’s legal justification for using lethal force against suspected terrorists with U.S. citizenship, saying the military could target them if the government believes they pose an “imminent” threat to the country.
The Obama administration used that controversial legal determination to kill U.S.-born alleged al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.
Spicer was peppered with questions about the policy in response to a weekend counterterrorism raid in Yemen that left al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter dead, according to NBC News.
The spokesman refused to confirm the death, but said the raid resulted in the killings of 14 al Qaeda operatives and the capture of sensitive intelligence.
One Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, was killed in the raid.
Spicer’s comment was surprising given Trump’s desire to take a more aggressive stance against overseas terrorist groups than former President Obama did.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump floated the possibility of using controversial tactics to ramp up the fight against extremist groups, included going after the family members of suspected terrorists.
“When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told “Fox and Friends” in December 2015. “They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself.”
“The United States does not and will not deliberately target family members of terrorists,” the White House official said.