Attorney General Eric Holder (shown in photo) issued the first official acknowledgement Wednesday that the United States has killed four U.S. citizens with drone strikes, including the targeted killing of Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in September 2011. Holder also acknowledged the killing by drone strikes of three other Americans: Samir Khan, who was killed in the same strike that killed Awlaki; Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also killed in Yemen; and Jude Mohammed, killed in Pakistan.
"These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States," Holder said in a letter to congressional leaders that the New York Times obtained and disclosed in a report published Wednesday. That suggests the three, including Awlaki's son, were killed in strikes on other targets, what is routinely described in military jargon as "collateral damage." But Holder was quite explicit in acknowledging and defending the targeted killing of Awlaki, whose death President Obama announced on September 30, 2011. While crediting U.S. intelligence for tracking Awlaki, the president did not then or at any time since acknowledge that he was killed by a U.S. strike.
Holder said Awlaki had not only written messages urging attacks on Americans, but was also directly involved in planning attacks. The radical Muslim cleric was believed to be behind the attempted attack on a Detroit-bound airliner by the "underwear bomber" on Christmas Day, 2009. Holder said he also played a key role in a plot to bomb cargo planes headed for the United States in October 2010, having participated 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 told the congressional leaders."The decision to target Anwar al-Awlaki was lawful, it was considered, and it was just," the attorney general wrote.
The letter was delivered the day before President Obama is scheduled to discuss the war on terror and the policy governing drone strikes in an address at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington. According to an unnamed White House official quoted by the Times, the president "will discuss why the use of drone strikes is necessary, legal and just, while addressing the various issues raised by our use of targeted action."
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Photo of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder: AP Images