WASHINGTON — A report Monday night on the nature of the administration’s drone program has the potential to dramatically revamp the debate over President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and the confirmation process for his incoming cabinet.

The report, by Michael Isikoff of NBC News, reveals that the Obama administration believes that high-level administration officials — not just the president — may order the killing of “senior operational leaders” of al Qaeda or an associated force even without evidence they are actively plotting against the U.S.

“A lawful killing in self-defense is not an assassination,” states the Justice Department white paper quoted by Isikoff.

The 16-page memo, given to Congress in June, is not the final Office of Legal Counsel memo that news organizations have sued to obtain. But it offers plenty of insight into the government’s justification for killing American citizens in overseas drone strikes.

The paper states that the U.S. would be able to kill a U.S. citizen overseas when “an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” determines the target is an imminent threat, when capture would be infeasible and when the operation is “conducted consistent with applicable law of war principles.”

The white paper suggests that such decisions would not be subject to judicial review and outlines a broad definition of what constitutes “imminent” threat.

Constitutional experts said the memo’s definition doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Administration critics immediately said the white paper is fresh evidence the president has abandoned his 2008 campaign pledge to recognize and respect the limits of executive power.

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