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Anti-cleric move defended by chief

A top counter-terrorism official has defended the government's right to target US citizens perceived as terror threats for capture or killing, citing the example of the renegade al Qaida-linked cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Michael Leiter, director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, would not say whether al-Awlaki is on a US targeting list, but a senior counter-terrorism official has previously confirmed that the cleric is among terror targets sought to be captured or killed.

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, Mr Leiter justified the targeting with "all elements of US national power" those plotting to kill American citizens.

The remarks amounted to a rare glimpse into the secret decision-making process among top US counter-terror officials who oversee drone missile strikes against terrorists in Pakistan and other battle zones abroad.

In its first year, the Obama administration has nearly doubled the use of airborne attacks in Pakistan's lawless frontier areas, where US officials say al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden is hiding.

Mr Leiter pointed to the recent missile strike that killed Sheikh Saeed al-Masri, al Qaida's number three in command, as an example of the success of the drone strike program. Panetta was the first to confirm that killing this past weekend.

Acknowledging the hard choices involved in targeting someone to be killed, Leiter said such a decision "certainly gives me pause." He added that president Barack Obama and CIA Director Leon Panetta also wrestle with similar deliberations "to issue orders to end an individual's life."

But he insisted the US is well within its rights to defend itself.

He used the case of al-Awlaki as an example, saying he had a "direct operational role" in the plot that allegedly sent Christmas Day bombing suspect Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab to attack a Detroit-bound airliner packed with nearly 300 passengers.

"If someone like Anwar al-Awlaki is responsible" for part of a plot "to kill more than 300 people over the city of Detroit," Mr Leiter said, "I think it would be wholly irresponsible for citizens like me, Leon Panetta, Defence Secretary (Robert) Gates, and ultimately the president, not to at least think about and potentially direct all the elements of national power to try to defend the American people."

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