WASHINGTON — One day before President Obama is due to deliver a major speech on national security, his administration formally acknowledged on Wednesday that the United States had killed four US citizens in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.
In a letter to congressional leaders obtained by The New York Times, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. disclosed that the administration had deliberately killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric, in a drone strike in September 2011 in Yemen.
The US responsibility for Awlaki’s death has been widely reported, but the administration had until now refused to confirm or deny it.
The letter also said that the United States had killed three other Americans: Samir Khan, who was killed in the same strike; Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was also killed in Yemen; and Jude Mohammed, who was killed in a strike in Pakistan.
“These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States,” Holder wrote.
While rumors of Mohammed’s death had appeared in local news reports in Raleigh, N.C., where he lived, his death had not been confirmed by the US government until Wednesday.
According to former acquaintances of Mohammed in North Carolina, he appears to have been killed in a November 2011 drone strike in South Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal area. Mohammed’s wife, whom he had met and married in Pakistan, subsequently called his mother in North Carolina to tell her of his death, the friends say.
Holder, in a speech at Northwestern University Law School last year, laid out the administration’s basic legal thinking that US citizens deemed to be operational terrorists, who pose an “imminent threat of violent attack” and whose capture is infeasible may be targeted. That abstract legal thinking — including an elastic definition of what counts as “imminent” — was further laid out in an unclassified white paper provided to Congress last year, which was leaked earlier this year.
But Holder’s letter went further in discussing the death of Awlaki in particular, an operation the administration had previously refused to publicly acknowledge. He said it was not Awlaki’s words urging violent attacks against Americans that led the United States to target him, but direct actions in planning attacks.
Holder said that Awlaki not only planned the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, 2009, a claim that has been widely discussed in court documents and elsewhere, but also played a key role in an October 2010 plot to bomb cargo planes bound for the United States, including taking “part in the development and testing” of the bombs.
“Moreover, information that remains classified to protect sensitive sources and methods evidences Awlaki’s involvement in the planning of numerous other plots against US and Western interests and makes clear he was continuing to plot attacks when he was killed,” Holder wrote.
He added, “The decision to target Anwar al-Awlaki was lawful, it was considered, and it was just.”
Obama announced the death of Awlaki on Sept. 30, 2011, and credited US intelligence, but he did not explicitly acknowledge that Awlaki was killed by a US strike.
Critics were not assuaged by Holder’s letter.
“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,” said Zeke Johnson, an official with Amnesty International. “President Obama should reject these concepts in his speech tomorrow and commit to upholding human rights, not just in word but in deed.”