WASHINGTON — The Obama administration acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that American citizens have been killed in U.S. drone strikes overseas.
Attorney General Eric Holder disclosed the four deaths in a letter to Congress in advance of a major national security speech that President Obama is scheduled to give on Thursday.
The four killings occurred in counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda and other suspected terrorist forces.
In the letter, Holder said the administration targeted Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric who died in a drone strike in Yemen on Sept. 30, 2011. The killing was widely reported at the time — but until now, the administration had not formally taken responsibility for it.
The other three Americans “were not specifically targeted by the United States,” Holder wrote.
Holder identified them as as Queens-raised propagandist Samir Khan, who was killed in the same drone strike as Awlaki; Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was killed two weeks later, also in Yemen; and Jude Mohammad, a Florida native who left the U.S. for Pakistan in 2008 to wage jihad.
Drones killed U.S.-born terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki along with three Americans “not specifically targeted by the United States,” the White House said.
Human rights groups and lawmakers in both parties have been pressing the administration to disclose information about government’s targeting of suspected terrorists outside the U.S.
Under the secret program, unmanned aircraft have been used to kill enemy combatants in countries from Pakistan to Yemen.
Obama promised in his State of the Union address in February to explain how the U.S. was targeting, detaining and prosecuting terrorists. “I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way,” he said.
In his letter Wednesday, Holder said that a “small number” of American extremists sealed their fate by plotting against their country overseas.
Based on “generations-old legal principles” and World War II-era Supreme Court decisions, “it is clear and logical that United States citizenship alone does not make such individuals immune from being targeted,” Holder said.
Awlaki, who fled the U.S. soon after 9/11 to produce radical online sermons, influenced terrorists, including failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmuttallab. He allegedly also influenced Boston bombers Zhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev.