United States Attorney General Eric Holder has informed Congress that four American citizens have been killed in Yemen and Pakistan by US drones since 2009.
It has been widely reported but rarely acknowledged in Washington that three US citizens — Samir Khan, Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki — were executed in a September 2011 strike in Yemen. With Holder’s latest admission, however, a fourth American — Jude Mohammed — has also been officially named a casualty of America’s continuing drone war.
“Since 2009, the United States, in the conduct of US counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda and its associated forces outside of areas of active hostilities, has specifically targeted and killed one US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki,” the letter reads in part. “The United States is further aware of three other US citizens who have been killed in such US counterterrorism operations over that same time period,” Holder said before naming the other victims.
“These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States,” the attorney general wrote.
The news of the admission broke Wednesday afternoon when New York Times reporter Charlie Savage published the letter sent from Holder to congressional leaders in a clear attempt to counter critics who have challenged the White House for falling short of US President Barack Obama’s campaign plans of utmost transparency. Upon a growing number of executive branch scandals worsened by the Justice Department’s recently disclosed investigation of Associated Press journalists, Holder wrote that coming clean is an effort to include the American public in a discussion all too often conducted in the shadows cast by the US intelligence community.
“The administration is determined to continue these extensive outreach efforts to communicate with the American people,” continued Holder. “To this end, the president has directed me to disclose certain information that until now has been properly classified. You and other members of your committee have on numerous occasions expressed a particular interest in the administration’s use of lethal force against US citizens. In light of this face, I am writing to disclose to you certain information about the number of US citizens who have been killed by US counterterrorism operations outside of areas of active hostilities.”
Drone strikes have become a signature counterterrorism tool used by the Obama administration and his predecessor, President George W. Bush, and have been attributed with killing roughly 5,000 persons abroad, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). But under the covert and protective umbrella of the Central Intelligence Agency, little has been formally acknowledged from Washington as to the details of these strikes.
As part of the vaguely defined ‘War on Terror,’ the US has reportedly waged drone strikes outside of Afghanistan where the Taliban once harbored al-Qaeda. In recent years, those strikes have targeted towns in neighboring Pakistan, as well as Yemen, Somalia and perhaps elsewhere.
But despite growing criticism over escalating use of drones, the president and his office has remained adamant about defending the operations. It’s “important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash,” Obama said last January, adding that his administration does not conduct “a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly.”
Others have argued quite the opposite, though, and have opposed these drone strikes over the lack of due process involved and the habit of accidently executing civilians in the strikes. When researchers at Stanford University and New York University published their ‘Living Under Drones’ report last September, they found that only about 2 percent of drone casualties are top militant leaders, and the Pakistani Interior Minister has said that around 80 percent of drone deaths in his country were suffered by civilians
Earlier this year, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) led a marathon filibuster on the floor of Congress to oppose the CIA’s drone program and demand the administration explain to elected lawmakers why the use of unmanned aerial vehicles is warranted in executing suspects, often killing innocent civilians as a result.