One day before President Obama is to deliver what aides have called a major national security speech, his administration publicly acknowledged for the first time that the United States had killed four American citizens with drone strikes during counterrorism operations in Yemen and Pakistan.
In a letter addressed to Congressional leaders, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that since 2009, the United States had "specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen," Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Muslim cleric who was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Al-Awlaki masterminded a plan to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
But the letter also acknowledged that the United States was "further aware" of three other U.S. citizens who had been killed, though not specifically targeted, "in such U.S. counterterrorism operations": Samir Khan, Abdulrahmn al-Awlaki (Anwar al-Awlaki's son), and Jude Kenan Mohammed.
Reports of the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki had already been widely circulated, but never before confirmed by the administration. The death of Jude Kenan Mohammed--who had been indicted by a federal grand jury in North Carolina for taking part in a plot to attack U.S. military targets--was also new information, reported NBC's Pete Williams. Mohammed's photo was still on the FBI most wanted list as of Wednesday afternoon.
According to a White House official, the president decided to disclose the information to "build on the administration's effort to pursue greater transparency" around counterterrorism operations, NBC's Chuck Todd reported. The disclosure was also meant to coincide with the president's Thursday speech, which will delve into counterterrorism strategy, as well as the legal rationale for targeted killings of al Qaida operatives.
The letter reads:
"Based on generations-old legal principles and Supreme Court decisions handed down during World War II, as well as during the current conflict, it is clear and logical that United States citizenship alone does not make such indiviudals immune from being targeted. Rather, it means that 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. 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-Qa'ida or its assoicated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans in the following circumstances: (1) the U.S. governemnt has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; (2) capture is not feasible; and (3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles."