U.S. counter-terrorism officials may try to kill American citizens embroiled in extremist groups overseas with "specific permission" from higher up, the top U.S. intelligence chief said.
"We take direct action against terrorists in the intelligence community," Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the House Intelligence Committee in a rare admission that Washington sometimes targets US citizens.
If "we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that," Blair said in response to questions from the panel's top Republican, Representative Pete Hoekstra.
Blair's comments came after The Washington Post reported that US President Barack Obama had embraced predecessor George W. Bush's policy of authorizing the killing of US citizens involved in terrorist activities overseas.
The Post, citing anonymous US officials, said the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Joint Special Operations Command have three Americans on their lists of specific people targeted for killing or capture.
Blair said weighing whether to target a US national required determining "whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans."
The intelligence chief said he was offering such unusually detailed information in public because "I just don't want other Americans who are watching to think that we are careless."
"In fact, we're not careless about endangering lives at all, but we especially are not careless about endangering American lives as we try to carry out the policies to protect most of the country," he said.
Hoekstra asked whether there were standards by which a hypothetical radical cleric would be judged to have "crossed the line" from denouncing US policy into recruiting terrorists or coordinating attacks on US targets.
"We don't target people for free speech. We target them for taking action that threatens Americans," said Blair.
Hoekstra pressed him, citing a 2001 incident in which Peru's air force shot down a plane carrying US missionaries, killing a woman and her seven-month-old daughter, after the aircraft was misidentified as a drug-smuggler.
"We were careless and we were reckless. And I want to make sure that this committee does everything that it can and within its power that it does not allow the community to be reckless and careless again," Blair said.
"While I'm in charge, we will not be careless and reckless," he pledged.
© AFP 2013