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Lawerence Hurley | Reuters

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder pauses during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 6, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder pauses during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 6, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Attorney General Eric Holder said on Thursday that President Barack Obama would not have the authority to order a drone to kill an American citizen on U.S. soil who was “not engaged in combat.”In a two-sentence letter to Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul, Holder said he had heard Paul wanted to know if the president could use a drone to kill an American outside of an emergency situation.

“The answer to that question is no,” Holder wrote.

He was responding in part to Paul’s extensive critique of a letter the attorney general sent to the senator, which was made public on Tuesday. Holder said then that drone strikes against Americans on U.S. soil were not anticipated, but he did not rule them out in circumstances similar to the September 11 attacks in 2001.

On Wednesday, Paul spent nearly 13 hours speaking on the Senate floor in an attempt to block the confirmation of John Brennan as the next CIA director in protest at the use of drones in targeted killings.

The Obama administration has increasingly used drone strikes to target militants overseas, particularly in Pakistan and Yemen.

Terry Frieden | CNN

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator UAV assigned to the California Air National Guard's 163rd Reconnaissance Wing flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California, on January 7, 2012. Iranian jets fired on a Predator drone on November 1 over the Persian Gulf, an incident the Air Force says took place over international waters.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator UAV assigned to the California Air National Guard’s 163rd Reconnaissance Wing flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, California, on January 7, 2012. Iranian jets fired on a Predator drone on November 1 over the Persian Gulf, an incident the Air Force says took place over international waters.

Attorney General Eric Holder is not entirely ruling out a scenario under which a drone strike would be ordered against Americans on U.S. soil, but says it has never been done previously and he could only see it being considered in an extraordinary circumstance.He began to winnow the list of those possible extraordinary circumstances Wednesday. In testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, pressed Holder whether he believed it would be constitutional to target an American terror suspect “sitting at a cafe” if the suspect didn’t pose an imminent threat.

“No,” Holder replied.

But he also said the government has no intention of carrying out drone strikes inside the United States. Echoing what he said in a letter to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, he called the possibility of domestic drone strikes “entirely hypothetical.”

That letter, released Tuesday, was prompted by questions raised over the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. Specifically, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee sought the Obama administration’s legal rationale for its use of drones to kill terror suspects overseas.

But Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican who has said he would do what he could to hold up Brennan’s nomination until he got a full answer to his query, wanted to know whether the administration considered that policy applicable domestically.

In a letter to Paul dated on Monday, Holder said it was possible, “I suppose,” to imagine an “extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate” under U.S. law for the president to authorize the military to “use lethal force” within the United States.

However, Holder said the question was “entirely hypothetical” and “unlikely to occur.” Read More

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