By Joe Johns
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Counterterrorism drone strikes have killed four Americans overseas since 2009, the U.S. government acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday, one day before President Barack Obama delivers a major speech on his administration’s counterterrorism policy.
In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, Attorney General Eric Holder said the United States specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen, al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, in 2011 in Yemen, alleging he was plotting attacks against the United States.
Holder also said the Obama administration was aware of three other Americans who had been killed in counterterrorism operations overseas.
Holder said Samir Kahn, Abdul Rahman Anwar al-Awlaki and Jude Kenan Mohammed were not targeted by the United States but he did not add any explanation.
The letter represents the first U.S. admission that the four were killed in counterterror strikes even though their deaths had been reported in the media.
Abdul Rahman Anwar Al-Awlaki was the 16-year-old son of the al Qaeda cleric and was killed in Pakistan about two weeks after his father’s death. Kahn was killed alongside the elder al-Awlaki.
It is believed Mohammed, who at one time was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, also died in Pakistan.
Obama will deliver long-promised remarks on Thursday at National Defense University explaining the legal framework behind decisions to unleash drones against suspected al Qaeda and affiliated terrorists and further detailing related policies, according to a White House official.
Targeting Americans with lethal force in counterterror operations overseas was a controversy that flared during confirmation hearings for CIA Director John Brennan earlier this year.
Senators aggressively sought the administration’s legal rationale for those operations.
Holder said Obama directed him to release the latest information that had been classified “until now.” He said the unprecedented disclosure was made as a way to build on the president’s commitment in his State of the Union Address earlier this year to “continue to engage” with Congress on counterterror efforts and to “ensure that they remain consistent with our laws and values.”
The senior al-Awlaki was believed by U.S. authorities to have inspired acts of terrorism against the United States. His facility with English and technology made him one of the top terrorist recruiters in the world. He was considered the public face of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
But Holder said in his letter that it “was not his words that led the United States to act against him” but his “direct personal involvement” in the “planning and execution” of terror attacks against the United States that “made him a lawful target.”
For instance, Holder said al-Awlaki “planned a suicide operation” for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a U.S.-bound jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009, which failed. Abdulmutallab is jailed in the United States.
Calling the decision to use lethal force “one of the gravest our government” can face,” Holder said the operation targeting al-Awlaki received “exceptionally rigorous” legal review and additional policy screening by the administration. Congress was also briefed on the possibility of targeting the al Qaeda figure and informed once the decision was made in 2010.
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