U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is defending the controversial policy of assassinating U.S. citizens abroad suspected of plotting terrorism as a way to keep the American people safe.
Holder was forced to speak Tuesday after an unclassified Justice Department memo spelling out the policy was leaked.
Holder said Congress gave the government permission to take action against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups all over the world. He said the Obama administration's primary concern is protecting Americans in a way that meets federal laws.
"Our primary concern is to keep the American people safe, but to do so in a way that is consistent with our laws and consistent with our values. We have, as a basis for action that we take, a congressional statute that allows us to operate against al-Qaida and associated entities, not only in Pakistan or not only in Afghanistan, but in other parts of the world," said Holder.
The White House has defended the targeted killing of terror suspects by drones since two U.S. citizens were assassinated in Yemen in 2011.
Administration officials have justified the attacks when they say a terrorist strike was imminent.
"We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing, actual threats to stop plots, prevent future attacks and - again - save American lives. These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
But the leaked memo says a citizen may also be targeted for death for being part of an ongoing terror plot. It also says killing may be justified when officials conclude that capturing a suspect is not possible.
Legal experts say they are concerned that the broader guidelines may lead to cases of mistaken identity. Democratic Congressman Jim Moran says the policy may be a serious threat to American civil liberties.
Eleven U.S. senators are asking the Obama administration to show them all the legal opinions that allow it to target U.S. citizens for assassination.