By Matthew Cole, Richard Esposito and Brian Ross
White House lawyers are mulling the legality of proposed attempts to kill an American citizen, Anwar al Awlaki, who is believed to be part of the leadership of the al Qaeda group in Yemen behind a series of terror strikes, according to two people briefed by U.S. intelligence officials.
One of the people briefed said opportunities to "take out" Awlaki "may have been missed" because of the legal questions surrounding a lethal attack which would specifically target an American citizen.
A spokesperson said the White House declined to comment.
While Awlaki has not been charged with any crimes under U.S. law, intelligence officials say recent intelligence reports and electronic intercepts show he played an important role in recruiting the accused "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Awlaki also carried on extensive e-mail communication with the accused Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hasan, prior to the attack that killed 12 soldiers and one civilian.
According to the people who were briefed on the issue, American officials fear the possibility of criminal prosecution without approval in advance from the White House for a targeted strike against Awlaki.
An American citizen with suspected al Qaeda ties was killed in Nov. 2002 in Yemen in a CIA predator strike that was aimed at non-American leaders of al Qaeda. The death of the American citizen, Ahmed Hijazi of Lackawanna, NY, was justified as "collateral damage" at the time because he "was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," said a former U.S. official familiar with the case.
In the case of Awlaki, born in New Mexico and a college student in Colorado and California, a strike aimed to kill him would stretch current Presidential authority given to the CIA and the Pentagon to pursue terrorists anywhere in the world.
Where Anwar al Awlaki Might Be Hiding
Awlaki's father told reporters in Yemen last week that his son had gone into hiding in the mountains of Yemen and was being protected by al Qaeda, even though, the father claimed, his son was not part of al Qaeda.
He told reporters he was pleading with the United States, "Please don't kill my son."
The question of what limits apply to an American with suspected operational ties to al Qaeda comes as the U.S. steps up efforts to track any American with ties to Yemen.
Hundreds of FBI and other federal agents will fan out this week as part of a secret operation to pursue leads about Americans with connections to Yemen that were previously dismissed as not significant, according to law enforcement officials.