The Obama administration has "no intention" of authorizing a drone strike against U.S. citizens on American soil, but Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged Tuesday that "an extraordinary circumstance" might make the option possible.
The explanation from Holder came in a letter, obtained by NBC News, to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Holder was responding to concerns raised by Paul, who had threatened to block the nomination of John Brennan to lead the CIA if the Obama administration didn't clarify its position on the use of drone strikes inside the United States. Holder said the U.S. has not used drones inside the country's borders and does not intend to do so.
"As a policy matter, moreover, we reject the use of military force where well-established law enforcement authorities in this country provide the best means for incapacitating a terrorist threat," Holder wrote.
But near the end of the letter, the attorney general hedged.
"It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the president to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States," Holder wrote. "For example, the president could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstances of a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on Dec. 7, 1941 and Sept. 11, 2001."
The caveat in Holder's response differed from Brennan's letter to Paul, which was obtained by Mother Jones. In that letter, Brennan offered a straight-forward assertion that "the agency I have been nominated to lead does not conduct lethal operations inside the United States—nor does it have any authority to do so."
Paul bristled at Holder's response, telling NBC that it could open the door for a situation in which "an Arab-American in Dearborn (Mich.) is walking down the street emailing with a friend in the Mideast and all of a sudden we drop a drone [on him]. In a statement, the junior Kentucky senator called the position outlined by Holder "more than frightening." Paul said he will now filibuster Brennan's nomination, but conceded that it's probably futile.
The Senate Intelligence Committee voted 12-3 on Tuesday to approve Brennan's nomination.