Feb. 3, 2010— -- The director of national intelligence affirmed rather bluntly today that the U.S. intelligence community has authority to target American citizens for assassination if they present a direct terrorist threat to the United States.
"We take direct actions against terrorists in the intelligence community; if … we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that," Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the House Intelligence Committee.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra D-Mich., addressed the issue at today's hearing.
"The targeting of Americans -- it's a very sensitive issue, but again there's been more information in the public domain than what has been shared with this committee," he said.
"There is no clarity." Hoekstra said. "What is the legal framework?"
"Whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American has -- is a threat to other Americans. Those are the factors involved." Blair explained. "We don't target people for free speech. We target them for taking action that threatens Americans."
According to U.S. officials, only a handful of Americans would be eligible for targeting by U.S. intelligence or military operations. The legal guidance is determined by the National Security Council and the Justice Department.
In the past, the U.S. has killed Americans overseas but they were viewed as "collateral damage." In 2002, the CIA killed American-born Kamal Derwish, a member of the "Lackawanna 6" terror group during a CIA Predator drone strike. Derwish was driving in a car with other members of al Qaeda, the government said.
In 2008, a missile strike in Somalia killed American Ruben Shumpert, a Seattle man suspected of being an Islamist radical. Shumpert was wanted by federal authorities on gun and counterfeit currency charges. He had agreed to plead guilty but fled the country days before sentencing in 2004.
The Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al Awlaki, who has become a prominent influence with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was at a meeting with leaders of the terror group when U.S. officials knowingly launched a cruise missile strike to eliminate the terror leaders. Several people were killed but Awlaki survived.