Washington – The Obama administration confirmed for the first time on Wednesday that four Americans have died in U.S. drone strikes since 2009, but it sought to justify the killing of only one – a senior leader of al Qaida’s Yemen-based affiliate – and said nothing about the other three except to acknowledge indirectly that they’d been killed by accident.
The confirmation came in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., from Attorney General Eric Holder that was released one day before President Barack Obama is to deliver a major counterterrorism speech in which he is expected to disclose more details of the secret targeted killing program.
In the same speech, Obama is also likely to outline measures he plans to take to fulfill a recently renewed pledge – first made after his 2009 inauguration – to close the military-run detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The identities of three of the four Americans disclosed in Holder’s letter were known previously – Anwar al Awlaki, a cleric who’s been tied to a range of terrorist plots; Samir Khan, a one-time resident of Charlotte, N.C., who was editor of al Qaida’s online magazine; and Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki, the teenage son of Awlaki. The elder Awlaki and Khan were killed in the same attack; the younger Awlaki died in separate strike two weeks later.
The inclusion of the fourth American, Jude Kenan Mohammad, marked the first time that the United States has acknowledged his death, which reportedly occurred in a November 2011 drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal agency of South Waziristan.
Mohammad, a former resident of Raleigh, N.C., was the only one of eight men who remained on the loose after they were indicted by a federal grand jury in North Carolina in July 2009 on charges of plotting to attack the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va. According to the indictment, Mohammad “departed the United States to travel to Pakistan to engage in violent jihad” in October 2008.
The decision to kill the elder Awlaki “was lawful, it was considered, and it was just,” Holder wrote, reciting a list of attacks that Awlaki allegedly oversaw. They included a failed 2009 Christmas Eve attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit with a bomb hidden in his underwear.
The other three, however, “were not specifically targeted by the United States,” Holder said, indirectly verifying that they were killed by accident. He made no further references to the three.
Holder said his letter was only one of a number of steps the administration will be taking to fulfill pledges that Obama has made to provide “Congress and the American people with as much information as possible about our sensitive counterterrorism operations.”
To that end, he also disclosed that Obama recently approved “exacting standards and processes for reviewing and approving operations to capture or use lethal force against terrorist targets outside the United States and areas of active hostilities; these standards and processes are either already in place or are to be transitioned into place.”
While the procedures will be briefed to select lawmakers, they will remain secret, Holder said, adding that they “make clear that a cornerstone of the administration’s policy” is that “lethal force should not be used when it is feasible to capture a terrorist suspect.”
Obama pledged to provide greater transparency and develop a new “legal architecture” for targeted killings amid an intense outcry by civil and human rights groups, some lawmakers and foreign governments that drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilians and violate U.S. and international law, allegations denied by Obama and top aides.
Obama came under intense pressure from Leahy and other lawmakers who demanded to see the classified Department of Justice opinions setting down the legal justification for targeted killings. The administration refused for months to allow them access to the documents but relented earlier this year.
In his letter, Holder repeated assertions that he and other top U.S. officials have made in past speeches that targeted killings comply with international laws, including the laws of war. Moreover, he wrote, the Constitution allows the government to take “action to protect the American people from the threats posed by terrorists who hide in faraway countries and continually plan and launch strikes against the U.S. homeland.”
Nearly 4,000 people are estimated to have died in drone strikes that began under former President George W. Bush and were intensified by Obama. The vast majority have been launched by the CIA in Pakistan’s tribal area bordering Afghanistan, where al Qaida’s central leaders, the Afghan Taliban and its allies and Pakistani Islamist groups are based.
The CIA and the military’s U.S. Special Operations Command have also staged drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia.
The administration insists that it only targets confirmed “senior operational leaders” of al Qaida and associated forces involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks who are plotting imminent violent attacks on the United States.
However, a McClatchy review published in April of top-secret U.S. intelligence reports showed that the CIA killed hundreds of lower-level suspected Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified “other militants” in scores of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal area during the height of the operations in 2010-11.
The killing of Americans has been especially controversial, with human and civil rights groups contesting Obama’s legal authority to authorize them. Some conservative lawmakers led by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., demanded assurances that the president can’t order drone strikes against Americans inside the United States.
Holder, however, defended the decision to target Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico in 1971 to Yemeni parents and became a leader of al Qaida’s Yemen-based affiliate, al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. While Awlaki’s death has been the subject of numerous news reports, the government has never before officially acknowledged responsibility.
Holder recited a list of attacks that Awlaki allegedly oversaw. “In this role, Awlaki repeatedly made clear his intent to attack U.S. persons and his hope that these attacks would take American lives,” Holder wrote.
Holder repeatedly referred to a March 2012 speech in which he laid out in broad terms the administration’s arguments for the legality of targeted killings, including those of Americans. Supreme Court decisions show that “it is clear and logical that United States citizenship alone does not make such individuals (U.S. citizens) immune from being targeted,” he wrote.
“Rather it means the government must take special care and take into account all relevant constitutional considerations, the laws of war, and other law with respect to U.S. citizens – even those who are leading efforts to kill their fellow, innocent Americans,” he said. “Such considerations allow for the use of lethal force in a foreign country against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaida . . . and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans,” after an intense review that confirms they pose “an imminent threat.”
Moreover, the review shows that they cannot be captured and that the operation to kill them is consistent with the international laws of war, he said.
An intense review at the highest levels of the U.S. government determined that Awlaki “plainly satisfied all of the conditions,” Holder said.
He also disclosed that select members of Congress were briefed on the decision to kill him in February 2010, more than a year before the drone strike in which he died.
Holder described Awlaki as a senior leader and chief of external operations of AQAP – which he called “the most dangerous” al Qaida regional affiliate – who exhorted Muslims in the United States to wage holy war.
In addition to the 2009 Christmas Eve bombing plot, Awlaki played “a key role” in a failed October 2010 plot to plant bombs disguised as printer cartridges on two U.S.-bound cargo jets, Holder said. The United States also has classified information that outlines his involvement in “the planning of numerous other plots against U.S. and Western interests and makes clear he was continuing to plot attacks when he was killed,” he continued.
Michael Doyle and Anita Kumar of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
UPDATE: This version of the story was revised to note in the sixth paragraph that Mohammad was the only one of the eight men indicted for allegedly plotting to attack the Marine base at Quantico, Va., who remained free.