US President Barack Obama's administration has defended its use of lethal drones against US citizens. Photo: Reuters
Washington: The White House has defended drone strikes against al-Qaeda suspects, including Americans, as legal, ethical and wise and says they comply with US law and the constitution.
The White House defended President Barack Obama's power to wage drone war after a Justice Department memo argued that Americans high up in Al-Qaeda could be lawfully killed, even if intelligence fails to show them plotting an attack.
The disclosure by NBC news, which posted a link to the white paper on its web page, came as US drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere face increasing scrutiny and questions from human rights groups.
"We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats, to stop plots, to prevent future attacks and, again, save American lives," said White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday.
"These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise."
Among the most controversial of the attacks were the September 2011 killings in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, which stoked concern because the two were US citizens who had never been charged with a crime.
"I would point you to the ample judicial precedent for the idea that someone who takes up arms against the United States in a war against the United States is an enemy and therefore could be targeted accordingly," Mr Carney said.
The white paper offers a more expansive definition of self-defence and imminent attack than those given publicly in the past by senior US officials, who have cited "the inherent right to self-defence" in defending the attacks.
"The condition that an operational leader present an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future," the memo says.
Instead, an "informed, high-level" official could decide that the targeted individual posed "an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States" if he had "recently" engaged in such activities, and there was no evidence he had renounced or abandoned them.
The 16-page memo is entitled "Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a US Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qaeda or An Associated Force."
The leak comes just two days before White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan, a central player in the US drone campaign, goes before the Senate for hearings on his nomination to be head of the CIA.