WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is considering authorizing the CIA or the military to kill an American citizen hiding in Pakistan who allegedly has helped Al Qaeda militants plan attacks against U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan and is actively plotting future attacks, officials said Monday.
Justice Department lawyers are reviewing the evidence and have not yet determined whether President Obama should consider adding the American, whose identity was not disclosed, to the list of terrorism suspects who are hunted and killed overseas by drones, airstrikes or military raids.
The process has been complicated by the suspect's U.S. citizenship and new criteria for the targeted killing of Americans, officials said.
Under guidelines approved by Obama in May, a potential target must pose "a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons." Americans proposed for the so-called kill list also are entitled to legal due process, which the administration has interpreted to mean a review by the Justice Department.
The case could revive the bitter congressional debate over administration counter-terrorism policies, including drone strikes, that delayed Senate confirmation of CIA Director John Brennan last year.
Administration officials have been grappling with the case for months, according to three officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss it. The details were first reported Monday by the Associated Press.
The wire service said the suspect was well guarded and in a remote location, so any raid by U.S. troops to capture him would be risky and possibly even more politically sensitive than launching an airstrike or drone attack.
Under the new guidelines, drone strikes and other lethal force can be used outside war zones only "to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively." Pakistan would be considered outside a war zone.
A senior administration official said that under the policy, the U.S. military should be used whenever possible if an American is targeted. But the president can authorize the CIA to act if the military is constrained.
Pakistan does not allow the U.S. military to operate there, and the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 sparked outrage in the country. The CIA has launched hundreds of lethal drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, with Islamabad publicly criticizing the campaign but widely seen as giving tacit approval. However, the agency has not fired any missiles since December, at the request of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who recently began peace talks with leaders of the Taliban movement in Pakistan.
Some CIA and military special operations counter-terrorism officials are frustrated at what they view as bureaucratic hurdles in the current case, two officials said.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, apparently alluded to the case at a hearing on worldwide threats last week, saying the new rules "leave Americans' lives at risk" by limiting drone strikes.
"Individuals who would have been previously removed from the battlefield by U.S. counter-terrorism operations for attacking or plotting to attack against U.S. interests remain free because of self-imposed red tape," Rogers said.
During the debate last year, members of Congress from both parties demanded that potential American targets be given a chance to surrender and mount a defense in U.S. courts, rather than be killed without facing charges or a trial.
Others argued that an American who takes up arms against his country abroad is a legitimate military target and is not entitled to constitutional protections.
Several Americans have been linked to Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
They include Adam Gadahn, a spokesman for Al Qaeda who was born in Oregon and grew up in Santa Ana. He is seen as a propagandist, rather than an operational figure, and is under federal indictment in California.
The others are Abu Ibrahim Amriki and Sayfullah al-Amriki, both of whom were reportedly on the CIA target list in 2010, according to the Islamabad newspaper News Online, which says it got the list from Pakistani intelligence sources.
Little is known about them, said Bill Roggio, who runs the website Long War Journal, which tracks Al Qaeda militants.
Roggio said he believed the administration was "adhering to an unreasonably high legal standard for targeting what is clearly an enemy combatant in a combat zone. If Americans choose to side with Al Qaeda in its war against the U.S., then they should be fair game."
But Mieke Eoyang, director of national security at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, said the U.S. government should publicly warn Americans if they are targeted.
"When you are going to take steps that are final and there is no appeal, you have to give people a chance to say, 'You got the wrong guy. I'm not really as bad as you think,' " she said. "If you're going to kill somebody, you have to make your case."
U.S. drones have killed four Americans since 2009, but only one, Anwar Awlaki, was specifically targeted. Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, was killed in Yemen in 2011.
The three others were Samir Khan, who was killed with Awlaki; Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was killed in Yemen two weeks later; and Jude Kenan Mohammad, who was killed in late 2011 in Pakistan's tribal area.