For the first time, the U.S. government has acknowledged killing four American citizens in lethal drone strikes far outside traditional battlefields, confirming information that had been widely known but has only recently been unclassified under orders of the president.
Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Congress on Wednesday explaining that only one of the four dead U.S. citizens was explicitly targeted. Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric born in New Mexico, died in Yemen in September 2011 after an American drone fired on his vehicle. Holder said al-Awlaki had become a senior operational leader in al-Qaida's affiliate there, helping to direct an underwear bombing plot aimed at Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, and a separate, thwarted attack a year later involving bombs placed in printer cartridges in cargo planes.
Al-Awlaki's targeting required approval from several federal agencies and the highest levels of the U.S. government, Holder wrote, and appropriate congressional committees were briefed on the decision a full year before he was killed.
"The decision to target [al-Awlaki] was lawful, it was considered, and it was just," Holder wrote.
Three other Americans who have been killed under the drone program were not directly targeted. Samir Khan, an al-Qaida propagandist, died sitting next to al-Awlaki. And al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son died weeks later in a strike aimed at an outdoor café in Yemen.
The fourth person — Jude Kenan Mohammad — is much less widely known. A former North Carolina resident, Mohammad faced terrorism charges including conspiracy to provide support to terrorists and conspiracy to murder people overseas in 2009. A federal indictment from that year said Mohammad left the U.S. in October 2008, allegedly to travel to Pakistan to engage in violent jihad.
In his letter, Holder characterized the release of information as one step in "extensive outreach efforts to communicate with the American people." Members of Congress and national security experts across the political and ideological spectrum have called on the White House to be more transparent about its targeted killing program, particularly when U.S. citizens are on the so-called kill lists.
But the attorney general said some information would remain under wraps, including a still-classified document that sets out the "administration's 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." He said lawmakers would get private briefings on that document, approved by the White House this week.
President Obama is scheduled to deliver an important national security speech Thursday at the National Defense University, which will cover the legal and policy framework for counterterrorism operations.
Update at 6:25 p.m. ET. Human Rights Groups React
The letter did little to satisfy Zeke Johnson of Amnesty International USA. In a statement, Johnson says, "The Obama administration continues to claim authority to kill virtually anyone anywhere in the world under the 'global battlefield' legal theory and a radical redefinition of the concept of imminence. President Obama should reject these concepts in his speech tomorrow and commit to upholding human rights, not just in word but in deed. An independent investigation into all alleged extrajudicial killings should begin immediately, with remedy for any killings found to be unlawful."
And Dixon Osburn of Human Rights First said he welcomed more information about the program, but remains "deeply concerned that the administration appears to be institutionalizing a problematic targeted killing policy without public debate on whether the rules are lawful or appropriate." Osburn called on the White House to make public the still-classified document institutionalizing targeted killing."