Under orders from a US appeals court, the Obama administration has released a memo justifying the killing of American citizens with a targeted "drone strike." The memo presents a case for killing Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda propagandist who was killed in Yemen in 2011. The strike on al-Awlaki has been widely debated since then, especially after a separate attack inadvertently killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son Abdulrahman. Now, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request made by the ACLU and others, it's possible to read both the court's reasoning and the 30-page legal debate on whether he and others could be killed without due process under the CIA's drone program.

Over 3,500 people have been killed under the program

While this memo has not been released publicly before, Senators have been given access to it. Attorney General Eric Holder has previously summarized the justification, saying that targeted killings — whether by unmanned aerial vehicles or manned aircraft — can be carried out if the citizen in question poses an imminent threat, cannot be captured, and can be killed without violating the more general laws of war. So far, four Americans are known to have died through the targeted strike program, including al-Awlaki and his son. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that over 3,500 people in total have been killed under the program.

As in the previously released white paper, the government's reasoning relies heavily on the public authority justification, a rationale that has been widely criticized in the past. Under the finding, the strike is legal as long as the individual "poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States," cannot feasibly be captured, and the strike does not violate any previously established law of war.