The administration informed the relevant congressional oversight committees that it had approved the use of lethal forces against Anwar al-Awlaki in February 2010, well over a year before the operation, Holder said.
A move to gradually shift responsibility for the bulk of U.S. drone strikes from the CIA to the military has already begun. And, according to an administration official speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, the move would largely divide the strikes on a geographical basis, with the CIA continuing to conduct operations in Pakistan, while the military takes on the operations in other parts of the world.
Officials suggest that the CIA strikes into Pakistan have been successful, and point to the agency's ability to gather intelligence there. So, there is less of an inclination to change that now.
In other countries, such as Yemen, Somalia or portions of North Africa, the Defense Department will handle the drone strikes as regular military operations.
In March, the Senate confirmed John Brennan to be CIA director after the Obama administration agreed to demands from Republicans and stated explicitly there are limits on the president's power to use drones against U.S. terror suspects on American soil.
Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington legislative office, said the administration should "produce the legal rationale that allows him to unilaterally decide when drones can be used ... and we would like him to clarify why he feels he has the authority to use drones outside of the battlefield and how he's going to constrain that authority."
Frank Cilluffo, White House domestic security adviser to President George W. Bush, said Wednesday that the fact that the U.S. targeted al-Awlaki and killed three other U.S. citizens in drone strikes should have been part of the public discourse all along.
He said there had been a lingering narrative that Awlaki was an inspirational leader, while in reality he had a key role in multiple operations targeting Americans. "The fact that they are making this public provides justification for the actions they took," said Cilluffo, now director of a homeland security studies program at George Washington University.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Julie Pace in Washington, and Michael Biesecker in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.
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