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White House: Drone Strikes on Terror Suspects 'Legal,' 'Ethical,' 'Wise'

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- The White House on Tuesday defended the use of targeted drone strikes against American citizens abroad suspected of high-level terrorist activity, but declined to detail the criteria for ordering such an attack.

“Sometimes we use remotely piloted aircraft to conduct targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists in order to prevent attacks on the United States and to save American lives,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters.

“We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats, to stop plots, to prevent future attacks and, again, save American lives. These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise,” he said.

Administration lawyers found it is lawful to kill an American citizen if a “high-level” government official believes the target is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda who poses “an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States” and if capture is infeasible, according to a newly disclosed Justice Department document.

The 16-page white paper, first obtained by NBC News, finds there “exists no appropriate judicial forum to evaluate these constitutional considerations” and that the administration does not need to present evidence to a court before or after ordering such an attack.

Carney repeatedly declined to discuss the details of the white paper at Tuesday’s White House press briefing.

“I would point you to the ample judicial precedent for the idea that someone who takes up arms against the United States in a war against the United States is an enemy and therefore could be targeted accordingly,” he told ABC News’ Jonathan Karl.

“[The president] takes his responsibility as commander in chief to protect the United States and its citizens very seriously. He takes the absolute necessity to conduct our war against al-Qaida and its affiliates in a way that's consistent with the Constitution and our laws very seriously,” he said.

The white paper is believed to be a summary of the reported classified memo that outlined the legal justification for the drone attack that killed American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011.

The American Civil Liberties Union has called the newly discovered document “profoundly disturbing.”

“It’s hard to believe that it was produced in a democracy built on a system of checks and balances. It summarizes in cold legal terms a stunning overreach of executive authority – the claimed power to declare Americans a threat and kill them far from a recognized battlefield and without any judicial involvement before or after the fact,” director of the ACLU’s National Security Project Hina Shamsi said in a written statement.

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