TIME National Security

Here’s the Secret Memo That Justified Anwar al-Awlaki Killing

Anwar al-Awlaki
This October 2008 file photo shows Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike three years later, in 2011 Muhammad ud-Deen—AP

Well, except the bits that have been redacted

Correction appended, June 23

A federal court released a legal memo that justified the drone killing of alleged American terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki on Monday, after years of legal wrangling.

The U.S. government earlier this year lost a freedom-of-information lawsuit filed by the New York Times and American Civil Liberties Union calling for the release of the memo, drafted by the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel. It provided the legal basis for killing the New Mexico–born leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Awlaki, in Yemen in September 2011.

The Department of Justice decided against appealing the ruling amid pressure from congressional lawmakers, who were holding up the nomination of David Barron, the attorney who drafted the memo.

A “white paper” summary of the document was leaked to the media in early 2013. The memo argues that because capturing al-Awlaki was infeasible and he posed an “imminent threat” to the U.S. that a drone strike could be carried out.

Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, said the release of the memo would shed new light on the government’s drone program. “There are few questions more important than the question of when the government has the authority to kill its own citizens,” he said. “This memo’s release will allow the public to better understand the scope and implications of the authority the government is claiming. We will continue to press for the release of other documents relating to the targeted killing program, including other legal memos and documents relating to civilian casualties.”

Parts of the memo remain redacted because they are classified, with just 31 of 41 pages released and substantial portions blanked out, but here is the memo as released publicly:

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the circumstances of the memo’s release. It was released by a federal court.

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