In letter to Congress, Holder discloses drone attacks killed four Americans

The U.S. has killed four Americans with drone attacks, Attorney General Eric Holder told lawmakers in a letter made public on Wednesday.

The revelation of the fourth death, which was not previously known, came the day before President Obama was slated to spell out the legal rationale for drone attacks in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.

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Holder didn’t specifically mention drones in the letter, saying only that four Americans have been killed in “counterterrorism” operations.

But one of the four Americans identified — Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim cleric — is widely known to have been killed by a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.

In addition to al-Awlaki, the U.S. is aware of “three other U.S. citizens who have been killed in such counterterrorism operations over that same time period” since 2009, Holder wrote.

Holder identified the three other Americans as al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki; Samir Khan; and Jude Kenan Mohammed. Those three individuals were not specifically targeted by the U.S. but were nonetheless killed in counterterrorism operations, according to Holder. 

The collateral deaths call into question U.S. claims that the drone strikes are carried out with a surgical precision that minimizes unintended casualties.

The use of drones by American military and CIA officials to attack terrorists began under President George W. Bush, but the practice has increased dramatically under Obama. The administration has used the armed, unmanned aerial vehicles in terrorism hotspots such as Pakistan and Yemen to target people suspected of plotting terrorist attacks against the United States.

Lawmakers have been clamoring for more information from the White House about the attacks, an issue that gained steam earlier this year when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) delivered a 13-hour talking filibuster to delay a vote on CIA Director John Brennan’s nomination. 

Paul demanded the administration tell him whether it believed it could legally kill U.S. citizens on American soil using a drone strike. Holder eventually responded that the administration would not target Americans on U.S. soil. 

In the new letter, Holder told Congress to expect imminent briefings on an official document Obama recently approved that provides the legal justification for the administration’s targeted killing program in other countries. 

Those briefings will likely include more questions from lawmakers about the deadly strikes on citizens.

Al-Awlaki was known for inciting attacks against the U.S., including the 2009 Fort Hood mass shooting, the thwarted “underwear” bombing of a U.S.-bound plane the same year and the failed Times Square bombing in 2010.

Kahn, a former editor for al Qaeda’s online propaganda magazine, Inspire, was reportedly killed in the same strike as al-Awlaki.

Holder said in the letter that it was not al-Awlaki’s inflammatory rhetoric that led the U.S. to target him, but rather, “his direct personal involvement in the continued planning and execution of terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland — that made him a lawful target and led the United States to take action.”

In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed “underwear bomber,” Holder said al-Awlaki “planned a suicide mission” for Abdulmutallab and “directed him to take down a U.S. airliner.” Holder also accused al-Awlaki of orchestrating the 2010 plot to detonate explosives on two U.S.-bound cargo planes. Al Awlaki was “directly involved in the details of its execution,” Holder wrote. 

“Based on this information, high-level U.S. government officials appropriately concluded that [al-Awlaki] posed a continuing and imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” Holder wrote.

A couple weeks after al-Awlaki’s killing, a U.S. drone attack reportedly killed his 16-year old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in Yemen.

Mohammed, the other citizen identified as having been killed by the U.S., was listed by the FBI as wanted for providing material support to a terrorist cell.

Florida-born Mohammed was reportedly killed by a strike in Pakistan, with an American friend telling a local news outlet last year that he had heard Mohammed was killed by a drone. American officials had not publicly acknowledged Mohammed’s death until Holder’s letter.

Holder described his letter as an effort by Obama to keep his State of the Union pledge to “continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.” 

Obama is expected to address the use of drones during the speech on Thursday and announce that the operations will soon be split between the Pentagon and the CIA, with the Department of Defense eventually gaining full control. 

A number of lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), have called for putting the drone program under the control of the Pentagon, which would put those missions under the rules of war.

“Overall authority [for drone operations] should rest with the DOD,” McCain said Wednesday.

The job of the CIA and the other intelligence agencies “should be collecting information [overseas] and providing it to Congress,” not carrying out military-like operations around the globe, McCain said.

Other lawmakers, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and frequent McCain ally Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) believe the program should remain under CIA control.

The legal debate over the use of drones has raged since Holder first laid out the administration’s legal justification for killing citizens abroad during a speech last year at Northwestern University. 

He said the government can justify lethal action against a citizen abroad once three criteria are met: a limited open window for attacking the target, a grave possible harm to U.S. citizens if the attack isn’t carried out, and a strong likelihood that targeting the person would head off a future attack against the U.S.

The administration has also laid out its legal justification in a detailed series of memos through its Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). 

While members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees were shown copies of all the OLC memos, House and Senate Judiciary committee members were not.

Both Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) threatened to subpoena the administration for access to the memos before the White House finally agreed to share them. They have still not been shared with the public.

The president acknowledged the use of drones during an online chat with Google Plus users last year, saying that “a lot of these strikes have been in the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan], and going after al Qaeda suspects who are up in very tough terrain on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military actions than the one we’re already engaging in.”

Carlo Muñoz contributed to this report.


This story was updated at 8:31 p.m.