Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday that the decision to kill a U.S. citizen living abroad who poses a terrorist threat “is among the gravest that government leaders can face,” but justified lethal action as legal and sometimes necessary in the war on terror.

Holder’s comments broke the administration’s silence on the legal justifications for its decision to kill American-born al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki five months ago in Yemen. In a speech prepared for delivery at Northwestern University law school in Chicago, he described al-Awlaki as concocting plans to kill Americans but he never explicitly acknowledged the administration responded by targeting the cleric for death.

Instead the attorney general outlined a three-part test for determining when a targeted killing against a U.S. citizen is legal. He said the government must determine after careful review that the citizen poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the U.S., capture is not feasible and the killing would be consistent with laws of war.

The Obama administration has refused to release the Justice Department legal opinion on al-Awlaki’s killing under the Freedom of Information Act and is in court opposing efforts to have it made public.

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