Rachel Maddow spoke to NBC News' Michael Isikoff Monday night about his acquisition of a Justice Department white paper that lays out some of the Obama administration's thinking behind its practice of killing American citizens with drone strikes.
Isikoff landed a major scoop for NBC, which immediately splashed the white paper on its website. In it, the Justice Department says, according to Isikoff, that:
The U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be "senior operational leaders" of al-Qaida or "an associated force" -- even if there is no intelligence indicating they are engaged in an active plot to attack the U.S.
Although evidence suggests that the paper is not the official memo which laid out the administration's guidelines for the killing of Americans such as Anwar al-Awlaki, it does provide a partial look at how Obama justifies such strikes.
Maddow noted that the details of the paper, as well as other questions surrounding the Obama administration's policy, are certain to come up when his counterterrorism czar John Brennan faces Congress during his confirmation hearing for CIA director on Thursday. She wondered, in particular, whether the administration thought its rights to kill Americans extended to people inside the United States.
"Could the CIA or any other intelligence agency come kill you if the appropriate high-ranking official in the Obama administration -- say, President Obama -- decided that you were affiliated with al-Qaeda and you were a threat and you might act imminently to endanger this nation, could you then legally be killed as you laid in your bed?" she asked.
She then turned to Isikoff, who said that the paper "fleshes out some of the arguments that have been made publicly, and in ways that in some instances contrast with what has been said publicly."
The paper says that anyone targeted for killing must present an imminent threat and that their capture must be unfeasible before they can be hit with a drone. Isikoff noted that the interpretations of what a threat means are "a bit more elastic and open to interpretation" than previously known.
"They refer to a 'broader concept of imminence' than direct active intelligence of a plot against the US," he said. "In fact, it explicitly states that imminence does not mean that the United States has to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons or interests is underway. If the US believes that the target has in the past been involved in such violent activities and the target has not renounced such activities it can be assumed that they are an imminent threat now and that that would justify an attack."
"The definition for why a capture [instead of a killing] is impractical also seems to be very, very wide," Maddow said.