The United States government will disclose its legal justification for the use of drones against US citizens suspected of "terrorism", a senior Obama administration official has said.

Tuesday’s announcement came as the Department of Justice (DOJ) made a decision not to appeal a court order requiring disclosure of a redacted version of the document under the Freedom of Information Act, an official told Al Jazeera.

In a case pitting executive power against the public's right to know what its government does, a US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower-court ruling preserving the secrecy of the legal rationale for the killings, such as the killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.

Ruling for the New York Times in the case, a unanimous three-judge panel said the government waived its right to secrecy by making repeated public statements justifying targeted killings.

Civil liberties groups and human rights activists have complained that the drone programme, which deploys pilotless aircraft, lets the government kill Americans without constitutionally required due process.

Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al-Qaeda leader born in the US, was killed after being targeted by a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.

The US use of drones against armed groups in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen has drawn international criticism and fanned anti-American sentiments in some Muslim countries.

In a March 2012 speech at Northwestern University in Illinois, US Attorney General Eric Holder had said it was "entirely lawful" to target people with senior operational roles in al-Qaeda and associated forces.

"Whatever protection the legal analysis might once have had has been lost by virtue of public statements of public officials at the highest levels and official disclosure of the DOJ White Paper," Circuit Judge Jon Newman wrote for the appeals court panel in New York last month.

The judge said in the ruling that it was no longer logical or plausible to argue that disclosing the legal analysis could jeopardize military plans, intelligence activities or foreign relations.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies