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Can drone strikes target US citizens? Critics say rules are vague.

Criticism of the leaked Justice Department document – which allows for drone strikes against top level terrorists who are US citizens – is piling up from both the right and left, with critics charging that its language is too permissive.

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This undated U.S. Air Force handout image shows a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. A leaked government memo addresses the killing of American citizens as part of its controversial drone campaign against al Qaeda.

Lt Col Leslie Pratt/US Air Force/Reuters/Handout

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A newly-leaked Justice Department memo detailing Obama administration rules for drone strikes on terrorists who are US citizens is drawing criticism Tuesday from across the political spectrum. It’s sure to be a central topic in the Senate on Thursday, when White House official John Brennan, who’s helped run the drone program, faces questions in his nomination hearing to be the next director of the CIA. 

The central aspect of the memo that critics find troubling is its vagueness. The document outlines loose definitions of which citizens qualify as top terrorists, the circumstances under which they pose an “imminent” threat to the US, and when it’s not feasible to simply capture them.

“The takeaway is that the Obama administration took a process that is supposed to constrain the president within the law’s confines ... and then qualified those constraints so drastically that it would be more honest to acknowledge that neither imminence nor infeasible capture are really required,” writes Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic, a longtime opponent of the secret drone program.

First, the basics: the 16-page memo was obtained by NBC News and published on its website. It appears to be an unclassified Justice paper summarizing a longer, classified Office of Legal Counsel official finding on when it is – and isn’t – legal for US security officials to target US citizens suspected of working with Al Qaeda.

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