The Obama administration's drone strikes have killed four U.S. citizens, it admitted on Wednesday.
In a letter to senior members of Congress, Attorney General Eric Holder writes that in addition to the targeted assassination of cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, since 2009, three other U.S. citizens—Samir Khan, Abd aI-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi, and Jude Kenan Mohammed—were also killed in "U.S. counterterrorism operations" though they "were not specifically targeted."
The Washington Post notes that
The deaths of three of the Americans — Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Awlaki, and Samir Khan, all of whom were killed in drone strikes in Yemen in 2011 — had been previously reported. The death of the fourth, Jude Kennan Mohammad, a Florida native apparently killed in Pakistan, had not been.
In fact, a federal lawsuit against senior CIA and military officials filed by the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights in 2012 charged that the assassinations of the three in Yemen violated the Constitution’s guarantee against the deprivation of life without due process of law.
On July 18, 2012, CCR and the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against senior CIA and military officials challenging their decisions to authorize the “targeted killing” of three United States citizens, Anwar Al-Aulaqi, Samir Khan, and Anwar’s sixteen year-old son Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, in drone strikes in Yemen last year. In 2010, after reports that Anwar Al-Aulaqi had been placed on executive “kill lists,” CCR and the ACLU filed suit on behalf of his father, Nasser, challenging the government’s authorization for his son’s killing.
On September 30, 2011, U.S. strikes killed Anwar Al-Aulaqi, along with Samir Khan and three others. Two weeks later, the U.S. launched another drone strike at an open-air restaurant in Yemen, killing Anwar Al-Aulaqi’s son, Abdulrahman, and six other civilian bystanders, including another teenager. These killings, undertaken without due process, in circumstances where lethal force was not a last resort to address a specific, concrete and imminent threat, and where the government failed to take required measures to protect bystanders, rises to a violation of the most elementary constitutional right afforded to all U.S. citizens – deprivation of life without due process of law.
The Justice Department's admission comes a day ahead of President Obama's counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University in Washington set to focus on drone strikes and the Guantanamo Bay prison.
In his letter, Holder reiterated the administration's rationale for the targeted killing of U.S. citizens he made at a speech at Northwestern, writing:
... the government must take special care and take into account all relevant constitutional considerations, the laws of war, and other law with respect to U.S. citizens - even those who are leading efforts to kill their fellow, innocent Americans. Such considerations allow for the use of lethal force in a foreign country against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al- Qa'ida or its associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, in the following circumstances: (1) the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; (2) capture is not feasible; and (3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.
Justifying why Anwar al-Aulaqi met this criteria, Holder writes that he
was not just a senior leader of AQAP - he was the group's chief of external operations, intimately involved in detailed planning and putting in place plots against U.S. persons.
In this role, al-Aulaqi repeatedly made clear his intent to attack U.S. persons and his hope that these attacks would take American lives. For example , in a message to Muslims living in the United States, he noted that he had come "to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding upon every other able Muslim." But it was not al-Aulaqi's words that led the United States to act against him: they only served to demonstrate his intentions and state of mind, that he "pray [ ed] that Allah [would] destro[y] America and all its allies." Rather, it was al-Aulaqi's actions - and, in particular, his direct personal involvement in the continued planning and execution of terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland - that made him a lawful target and led the United States to take action.
Holder continued defending the assassination, writing that
senior officials determined that the operation would be conducted consistent with applicable law of war principles, including the cardinal principles of (1) necessity - the requirement that the target have definite military value; (2) distinction - the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted; (3) proportionality - the notion that the anticipated collateral damage of an action cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated concrete and direct military advantage; and (4) humanity - a principle that requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering. The operation was also undertaken consistent with Yemeni sovereignty.
"This letter is only one of a number of steps the Administration will be taking to fulfill the President's State of the Union commitment to engage with Congress and the American people on our counterterrorism efforts," writes Holder. But there is much left out of the letter, noted Jeremy Scahill, journalist and author, and whose upcoming film Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield delves into the U.S. drone strikes in Yemen.
"While the Obama administration now admits it intentionally killed Anwar Awlaki despite never having charged him with a crime, it continues to insist that the evidence against him is too sensitive to be made public. The assassination of Anwar Awlaki was a watershed moment and crossed a dangerous line. The public has a right to know the full, legal basis for killing an American citizen without providing him any access to due process. How would Awlaki have surrendered when he was not even charged with a crime? How do you surrender to a drone?" Scahill said in a statement.
"Despite its claims to be the most transparent administration in history, the Obama White House continues to keep secret from the American people vital information about its claimed lethal authorities. How does an American get on the kill list? How does one get off the kill list, especially when there are no criminal charges filed against you?" continued Scahill.
But "Perhaps most disturbing about the Attorney General's letter," stated Scahill, "is that it leaves totally unexplained why the United States has killed so many innocent non-American citizens in its strikes in Pakistan and Yemen."
"From my investigation on the ground in a variety of countries, I've become convinced that we are making more new enemies than we are killing terrorists. We must confront the realities of the full impact of our 'targeted' killing program, particularly when innocent civilians are killed, so that we can have a real debate about whether our counterterrorism strategies are enhancing or degrading our national security," he said.