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WASHINGTON — President Obama's use of armed drones to kill suspected al-Qaeda leaders around the world, a centerpiece of his counterterrorism strategy, is coming under intense scrutiny as the White House's nominee for CIA director heads to Capitol Hill for a confirmation hearing Thursday.
John Brennan, who is currently the top counterterrorism official in the White House, has been closely associated with the president's policy of targeting terrorist leaders in the Middle East and Africa with armed drones.
On Thursday he is expected to face pointed questioning on the policy during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination.
The hearing comes as a memorandum has surfaced that provides the legal justification for the targeted killings, even when they involve U.S. citizens overseas.
The memo, first reported by NBC News on Monday, authorizes the killing of suspected terrorists overseas if they are judged an imminent threat to America. However, the memo says that it does not require U.S. authorities to conclude that a specific attack will take place "in the immediate future."
The memo cites the 9/11 attacks as an example of why U.S. authorities may need to act before preparations for an attack are finalized.
"These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday. "The U.S. government takes great care in deciding to pursue an al-Qaeda terrorist, to ensure precision and to avoid loss of innocent life."
The killing of U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011 raised concerns among civil rights advocates and lawmakers about the precedent of targeting an American citizen.
Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution analyst and member of the CIA External Advisory Board, said Brennan will likely face questions on the vetting process.
"He'll have to explain why the rules are the way they are in commonsense language," said O'Hanlon, who added that he could not discuss specific technology or countries.
A group of senators wrote Obama this week requesting that the Justice Department release the legal opinions that officials used to justify the authorization to target American citizens.
The administration has relied on the drone strikes to keep the pressure on al-Qaeda even as it has withdrawn forces from Iraq and is reducing troop numbers in Afghanistan.
The Long War Journal reports that there have been at least 322 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan since January 2008.
Contributing: David Jackson, USA Today