The CIA used a secret drone base in Saudi Arabia to launch the September 2011 strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a high-profile American member of al Qaeda, according to reports.
The purported existence of the drone base in the Middle Eastern nation was revealed in a pair of reports by The New York Times and The Washington Post today, a day before John Brennan, the chief architect of the Obama administration's counter-terror policy, faces Congressional leaders in a confirmation hearing over his nomination as head of the CIA.
Brennan, Obama's current counter-terror advisor and a CIA veteran, was instrumental in striking a deal with the Saudi government to set up the CIA drone base, according to the Times report. The base was established two years ago in an effort to intensify operations against al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen, AQAP, the Post said.
The CIA declined to comment, but a former national security official confirmed the base's existence to ABC News. "It's been an open secret that it was there," the official said. England's The Sunday Times included Saudi Arabia in a 2011 report about a series of secret drone bases in the region, citing a Gulf defense source.
Al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born al Qaeda cleric who was linked to several plots against the American homeland, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. Another American-born al Qaeda member, propagandist Samir Khan, was killed in the same strike.
The existence of American military or intelligence assets in the Gulf region has long been a controversial subject for local governments concerned with anti-American sentiment among their people and has been cited explicitly by terrorist organizations as their motivation for strikes.
Saudi Arabia, which is home to Mecca and Medina, two of Islam's holiest sites, is especially sensitive to the presence of Western troops, the former national security official said.
"There is a long history of vehement opposition in Saudi Arabia to the presence of foreign bases," the official said.
The revelation about the Saudi base comes just a day after NBC News published a Department of Justice document that summarized the legal justification for the Obama administration to mark a U.S. citizen for death by drone strike.
The 16-page document says that the government can take out Americans in foreign countries as long as:
The proposed target is a "senior operational leader of al Qaeda or an associated force of al Qaeda"
"An informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States"
Capturing the targeted individual is "infeasible," and the U.S. would continually monitor whether capture becomes feasible
The operation "would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles."
However, the document says that by "imminent threat," the DOJ does not mean the U.S. government actually has to have "clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future," but rather a "broader concept of imminence" must take into consideration terrorists who are "continually planning" attacks and the typically limited window during which a lethal operation may be conducted.
At least three Americans have been killed in drone strikes, including al-Awlaki's 16-year-old U.S.-born son, who the government said was collateral damage in a separate strike that targeted a senior al Qaeda figure.
Late Tuesday White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended the drone program as described in the DOJ documents, calling them "legal," "ethical," and "wise."
"Sometimes we use remotely piloted aircraft to conduct targeted strikes against specific al Qaeda terrorists in order to prevent attacks on the United States and to save American lives," Carney said. "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. These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise."
Officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this report.