WASHINGTON - The Obama administration acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that four American citizens have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen since 2009. The disclosure to Congress comes on the eve of a major national security speech by President Barack Obama in which he plans to pledge more transparency to Congress in his counterterrorism policy.
It was already known that three Americans had been killed in U.S. drones strikes in counterterrorism operations overseas, but Attorney General Eric Holder disclosed details that had remained secret and also that a fourth American had been killed.
In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, Holder said that the government targeted and killed U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and that the U.S. "is aware" of the killing of three others who were not targets of counterterror operations.
Al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric, was killed in a drone strike in September 2011 in Yemen. The other two known cases are Samir Khan, who was killed in the same drone strike as al-Awlaki and al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a Denver native, who also was killed in Yemen.
The newly revealed case is that of Jude Kenan Mohammed, one of eight men indicted by federal authorities in 2009, accused of being part of a plot to attack the U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va. Before he could be arrested, Mohammad fled the country to join jihadi fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where he was among those killed by a U.S. drone.
"Since entering office, the president has made clear his commitment to providing Congress and the American people with as much information as possible about our sensitive counterterrorism operations," Holder said in his letter to Leahy, D-Vt. "To this end, the president has directed me to disclose certain information that until now has been properly classified."
"The administration is determined to continue these extensive outreach efforts to communicate with the American people," Holder wrote.
A move to gradually shift responsibility for the bulk of U.S. drone strikes from the CIA to the military has already begun. And, according to an administration official speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, the move would largely divide the strikes on a geographical basis, with the CIA continuing to conduct operations in Pakistan, while the military takes on the operations in other parts of the world.
The White House said Obama's national security speech Thursday coincides with the signing of new "presidential policy guidance" on when the U.S. can use drone strikes, though it was unclear what that guidance entailed and whether Obama would outline its specifics in his remarks.