WASHINGTON - In unusually frank public comments, the top U.S. intelligence chief said on Wednesday that spy agencies could target Americans involved in terrorism but must get permission before a potentially deadly strike.

We take direct action against terrorists, in the intelligence community, Dennis Blair, director of national intelligence, said at a House committee hearing.

If ... we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that, he said, without mentioning where the permission came from.

The Washington Post reported last week that President Barack Obama approved a December 24 strike against a compound in Yemen where a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was believed to be meeting with regional al Qaeda leaders.

The CIA and the U.S. military's Joint Special Operations Command maintain lists of individuals they seek to kill or capture, and both lists included at least three Americans, The Washington Post said.

The comment on American targets in a public setting is highly unusual from a current intelligence official and even the congressman asking the questions was caught by surprise.

In making such decisions, whether that American is involved in a group that is trying to attack us, whether that American is a threat to other Americans, those are the factors involved, Blair said.

We don't target people for free speech. We target them for taking action that threatens Americans, he said.

I'm actually a little bit surprised you went this far in open session, Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra said.
Blair replied: The reason I went this far in open session is I just don't want other Americans who are watching to think that we are careless about endangering -- in fact we're not careless about endangering lives at all -- but we especially are not careless about endangering American lives as we try to carry out the policies to protect most of the country.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)