Attorney General Eric Holder informed Congress on Wednesday that the U.S. has killed four Americans in drone strikes since 2009: radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and three others who were “not specifically targeted.”
Holder’s disclosure, first reported by the New York Times, came a day before President Barack Obama was to defend his counterterrorism strategy in an afternoon speech at National Defense University. Obama was slated to focus on drone strikes—which have sparked anger across the Muslim world and increasingly tough questions in Congress—and on his broken promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for suspected extremists.
Separately, the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama planned to lift a ban on sending prisoners from Guantanamo to Yemen. The administration prohibited transfers to Yemen out of concern that, once there, they might carry out attacks or radicalize other Yemenis.
The administration will also resume transferring detainees to their home countries that the Pentagon has cleared for release, the paper reported.
Eighty-six of the 166 Guantanamo detainees have been cleared. Of those, 56 are from Yemen. But the first transfers will likely be of prisoners not from Yemen, the Journal reported, citing U.S. officials.
There is little appetite in Congress for closing the brig. Republicans and some Democrats have opposed doing so. And lawmakers of both parties were sure to scrutinize the attorney general's letter on drones.
"The President has directed me to disclose certain information that until now has been properly classified," Holder said in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that was made public by the administration.
"Since 2009, the United States, in the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qa'ida and its associated forces outside of areas of active hostilities, has specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen," Awlaki, Holder wrote.
"The United States is further aware of three other U.S. citizens who have been killed in such U.S. counterterrorism operations over that same time period," he wrote. "These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States."
Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011. His 16-year-old-son, Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in another strike two weeks later. Obama was "surprised and upset and demanded an explanation" for the second attack, according to a new book about the president's counterterrorism strategy.
Two other Americans, Samir Khan and Jude Kenan Mohammed, were also killed in drone attacks, Holder wrote.
The letter also went to the heads of the armed services, intelligence, foreign relations, and judiciary committees of the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as the chambers' top Republican and Democratic leaders.
A White House official confirmed that the disclosure was timed "to coincide with the speech the president will give tomorrow, in which he will discuss our broader counterterrorism strategy—including the policy and legal rationale for our use of targeted, lethal force against al-Qaida and its associated forces." It also reflects Obama's commitment "to pursue greater transparency around our counterterrorism operations," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Holder also disclosed for the first time that Congress knew early on about plans to kill Anwar al-Awlaki.
Top officials "briefed the appropriate committees of Congress on the possibility of using lethal force against al-Aulaqi," Holder wrote. "Indeed, the Administration informed the relevant congressional oversight committees that it had approved the use of lethal force against al-Aulaqi in February 2010 -well over a year before the operation in question -and the legal justification was subsequently explained in detail to those committees, well before action was taken against Aulaqi.”
And the attorney general said key congressional committees will be briefed on a document that institutionalizes what he called “exacting standards and processes” for deciding when to capture or kill a suspected extremist “outside the United States and areas of active hostilities.”
The human rights group Amnesty International reacted with alarm.
“No one should be reassured by Attorney General Holder's letter to Senator Leahy,” Zeke Johnson, the organization’s director of Security with Human Rights, said in a statement.
“The Obama administration continues to claim authority to kill virtually anyone anywhere in the world,” he said. “An independent investigation into all alleged extrajudicial killings should begin immediately, with remedy for any killings found to be unlawful.”
Leahy said on Wednesday he had spoken to Holder. “I appreciated his briefing about the letter and other matters. I will be reviewing it, among other materials, and look forward to the president's address," the senator said.
By disclosing that the administration is looking to write formal rules for drone strikes and making another stab at closing Guantanamo Bay, Obama is keeping promises he made in his State of the Union.
“I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word for it that we’re doing things the right way,” he said in that speech. “So in the months ahead, I will 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.”
He's also giving a nod to concerns from Americans—including many in his Democratic base—uneasy with both his targeted assassination policy and the prospects of keeping prisoners locked up forever without charge or trial.
Obama’s speech on Thursday also comes as key lawmakers are looking at revising the post-9/11 law that underpins virtually every aspect of the so-called war on terrorism.
The law, best known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, sailed through Congress by overwhelming votes shortly after the 2001 terror attacks. It gave the president the power “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Critics—from human rights and civil liberties groups to influential members of Congress—have argued that the legislation is outdated and that the executive branch has used it for purposes beyond its original intent.
“The fact is that this authority … has grown way out of proportion and is no longer applicable to the conditions that prevailed that motivated the United States Congress to pass the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that we did in 2001,” Republican Sen. John McCain told a Pentagon witness at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Wednesday that Obama recognizes the “absolutely valid and legitimate” criticisms and concerns about his drone policy. And the president agrees “there need to be structures in place that remain in place for successive administrations so that in the carrying out of counterterrorism policy, procedures are followed that allow it to be conducted in a way that ensures that we’re keeping with our traditions and our laws.”
And the speech itself reflects Obama’s desire to shape the debate.
But the White House attitude toward a rewrite of the AUMF has undergone several changes.
In March, spokesman Josh Earnest said the legislation did not need any updating.
“At this point, we feel like we have the authorities we need to go after elements of al-Qaida and those self-identified enemies of the United States and our allies and our interests, and we’re doing that very aggressively in order to protect the American people and our interests,” Earnest said by phone in response to a question from Yahoo News.
By early May, with Congress apparently ready to work on changing the AUMF with or without the White House, the message had changed.
“The Administration welcomes continued engagement with Congress on critical national security issues questions relating to the conflict with the Taliban and al-Qaida,” National Security Council Spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told Yahoo News in an email.