Anonymous U.S. officials told The Associated Press Monday that an American citizen who is a member of al-Qaida is actively planning attacks against Americans overseas.
The administration is now debating whether to use a drone strike option to kill the suspect, but questions loom over how to do so legally, given stricter drone targeting policy issued last year.
The four officials said that the suspected American terrorist is in a country that refuses U.S. military action on its soil.
While two of the officials described the man as an al-Qaida facilitator who has been “directly responsible for deadly attacks against U.S. citizens overseas and who continues to plan attacks against them,” another official said that the Defense Department is divided over whether the man is dangerous enough to merit a strike, given the potential political fallout of killing an American that has been neither charged nor tried for a crime.
The administration’s new drone policy states that U.S. citizens who are suspected terrorists overseas can only be killed by the military in designated “host-country” recognized war zones.
In contrast, the CIA commands, or it at least previously controlled, a greater degree of operational freedom to fly drones in areas where host countries might object.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers complained last week that “a number of terrorist suspects were all but out of reach under the administration’s new rules.” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, has also publicly objected to a shift of drone forces from CIA to the Pentagon, arguing that the CIA has more experience flying drones.
U.S. drones have killed four Americans since 2009, most famously al-Qaida recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, who the administration said was actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens.
In a speech at the National Defense University last year, President Obama said that “Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless ‘global war on terror,’ but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.”
“America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists,” Obama went on to say. “Our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose; our actions are bound by consultations with partners, and respect for state sovereignty.”
The Associated Press agreed to the government’s request to withhold the name of the country in its press report.