U.S. drone strikes have killed four American citizens in counterterrorism operations overseas since 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder said today, the Obama administration’s first public acknowledgment of those killings.
Holder, in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said the U.S. “specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen,” al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar Al-Awlaki, and the government is aware of three other citizens killed since 2009.
The letter was sent the day before President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech on the legal and policy framework of the U.S. drone program and detentions of suspected terrorists, including the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Obama, who has signed a new policy document laying out the standards for taking lethal action, plans to outline why drone strikes are legal and necessary, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified to preview the speech. The president also will announce specific steps he’s taking to keep a promise to wind down the Guantanamo prison.
Lawmakers in both parties, along with human rights groups, have pressed the administration to disclose information about government’s targeting of suspected terrorists outside the U.S. Under the secretive program, unmanned aircraft have been used to kill enemy combatants in countries from Pakistan to Yemen.
Leahy said in a statement he discussed the letter with Holder and “will be reviewing it, among other materials, and look forward to the president’s address.”
Obama promised in his February State of the Union address to explain to Congress and the public how the U.S. was targeting, detaining and prosecuting terrorists. “I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way,” the president said.
Tomorrow’s speech is meant make good on that vow.
While Obama hasn’t directly addressed the administration’s drone policy recently, he repeated on April 30 his view that Guantanamo should be closed.
“I’ve asked my team to review everything that’s currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively,” Obama said at a news conference. “And I’m going to reengage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interest of the American people.”
Congress has blocked Obama from closing the prison.
The drone program came under closer scrutiny during the Senate confirmation of Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan, who was an architect of the drone policy while serving as Obama’s counterterrorism chief. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, staged a 13-hour filibuster in early March over the issue that stalled a final vote on Brennan’s nomination.
During his filibuster, Paul pressed the administration to say whether the president had the authority to use drone strikes on U.S. soil against Americans suspected of being a terrorist. Holder responded in a letter to Paul that the president would not have that power, clearing the way for Brennan’s March 7 confirmation.
Holder said in his letter today that members of Congress will soon get more details about the drone program. Lawmakers will be briefed about a document recently approved by Obama that “institutionalizes” the standards and processes for approving operations to capture or use lethal force against terrorist targets outside the U.S., Holder said.
The letter, which also was sent to congressional leadership in the House and Senate and the senior members of the House and Senate Judiciary, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Relations and Defense committees, outlines pieces of a framework that dictates U.S. counterterrorism actions.
The classified standards approved by Obama are “already in place or are to be transitioned into place,” Holder said.
“When capture is not feasible, the policy provides that lethal force may be used only when a terrorist target poses a continuing, imminent threat to Americans, and when certain other preconditions, including a requirement that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat, are satisfied,” said Holder, who first provided the broad outlines of the U.S. targeted killing policy in March 2012 speech at Northwestern University’s law school.
Lawmakers’ and human-rights groups’ questions about the use of drones surged in the aftermath of the 2011 killing in Yemen of the radical cleric al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, and Samir Khan, 25, a Saudi-born American of Pakistani heritage. Two weeks later, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old, Denver-born son, Abdulrahman, was killed in strike in Yemen.
Jude Kenan Mohammad, a fourth U.S. citizen, was also killed in a drone strike, according to Holder’s letter. Mohammad had been charged in the U.S. in 2009 along with seven others for terrorism violations. He left the U.S. for Pakistan in 2008, according to the indictment.