Obama Owes Us Answers About This Dead 16 Year-Old American

little awlakiBy Conor Friedersdorf

Last week, President Obama declassified the fact that four American citizens have been killed in U.S. drone strikes “to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue,” according to his speech. The fact that he could do so without harming national security raises the question of why that information wasn’t made available sooner. Better late than never, I suppose. But Americans still don’t know why one of those Americans, a 16-year-old youth, was killed. What is oversight for if not finding that out? Islamist “militants” attacked a CIA compound in Benghazi and Congress is all over it. U.S. missiles kill an American citizen whose name didn’t appear on Team Obama’s kill list, and no one cares to establish exactly what went wrong? When is transparency important if not in cases like this?

In an essay that delved into the 16-year-old’s death, Tom Junod explained why his killing is a mystery:

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki wasn’t on an American kill list. Nor was he a member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Nor was he ‘an inspiration,’ as his father styled himself, for those determined to draw American blood; nor had he gone ‘operational,’ as American authorities said his father had, in drawing up plots against Americans and American interests. He was a boy who hadn’t seen his father in two years, since his father had gone into hiding. He was a boy who knew his father was on an American kill list and who snuck out of his family’s home in the early morning hours of September 4, 2011, to try to find him. He was a boy who was still searching for his father when his father was killed, and who, on the night he himself was killed, was saying goodbye to the second cousin with whom he’d lived while on his search… He was a boy among boys, then; a boy among boys eating dinner by an open fire along the side of a road when an American drone came out of the sky and fired the missiles that killed them all.

As if that weren’t reason enough to aggressively pursue answers, if only to prevent a wrong of this gravity from happening again, we’ve had two dark statements about the death from Obama insiders.

Jeremy Scahill, who provides the most exhaustively reported account of Abdulrahman’s death, reports:

A former senior official in the Obama administration told me that after Abdulrahman’s killing, the president was “surprised and upset and wanted an explanation.” The former official, who worked on the targeted killing program, said that according to intelligence and Special Operations officials, the target of the strike was al-Banna, the AQAP propagandist. “We had no idea the kid was there. We were told al-Banna was alone,” the former official told me. Once it became clear that the teenager had been killed, he added, military and intelligence officials asserted, “It was a mistake, a bad mistake.” However, John Brennan, at the time President Obama’s senior adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, “suspected that the kid had been killed intentionally and ordered a review. I don’t know what happened with the review.”

If I were a senator and saw that a senior official in the Obama Administration said (after departing) that its highest counterterrorism official thought an innocent kid had been killed intentionally in a drone strike, I would investigate! Especially since, if the account is accurate, Brennan thinks it is at least possible to wrongly target an individual American for death in a way that would surprise both he and Obama after the fact. How? If that doesn’t warrant scrutiny, what does?

There was also an anonymous official quoted in a 2012 Washington Post story who called the 16-year-old’s killing “an outrageous mistake …. They were going after the guy sitting next to him.” Aren’t outrageous mistakes that wrongly kill someone the sort of thing we usually investigate?

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