WASHINGTON -- A day before President Barack Obama is to deliver a major national security speech, his administration formally acknowledged Wednesday that the United States had killed four U.S. citizens in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.
In a letter to congressional leaders obtained by The New York Times, Attorney General Eric Holder disclosed that the administration had deliberately killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was killed in a drone strike in September 2011 in Yemen.
The U.S. responsibility for Awlaki's death has been widely reported, but the administration had refused to confirm or deny it until now.
The letter also said the United States had killed three other Americans: Samir Khan, who was killed in the same strike; Awlaki's son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was also killed in Yemen; and Jude Mohammed, who was killed in a strike in Pakistan. "These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States," Mr. Holder wrote.
While rumors of Mohammed's death had appeared in local news reports in Raleigh, N.C., where he lived, his death had not been confirmed by the U.S. government until Wednesday.
According to former acquaintances of Mohammed in North Carolina, he appears to have been killed in a November 2011 drone strike in South Waziristan, in Pakistan's tribal area. Mohammed's wife, whom he had met and married in Pakistan, subsequently called his mother in North Carolina to tell her of his death, the friends say.
Mr. Holder, in a speech last year at Northwestern University Law School in Evanston, Ill., laid out the administration's legal thinking that U.S. citizens may be targeted who are deemed to be operational terrorists, who pose an "imminent threat of violent attack" and whose capture is infeasible.
That abstract legal thinking -- including an elastic definition of what counts as "imminent" -- was further laid out in an unclassified white paper provided to Congress last year, which was leaked earlier this year.
But Mr. Holder's letter went further in discussing the death of Awlaki in particular, an operation the administration had previously refused to publicly acknowledge. He said it was not Awlaki's words urging violent attacks against Americans that led the United States to target him, but direct actions in planning attacks. Mr. Holder claimed that Awlaki not only "planned" the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Dec. 25, 2009, a claim that has been widely discussed in court documents and elsewhere, but also "played a key role" in an October 2010 plot to bomb cargo planes bound for the United States, including taking "part in the development and testing" of the bombs.
Mr. Obama announced the death of Awlaki on Sept. 30, 2011, and credited U.S. intelligence agencies, but he did not explicitly acknowledge that Awlaki had been killed by a U.S. strike.
Critics were not assuaged by Mr. Holder's letter.
"The Obama administration continues to claim authority to kill virtually anyone anywhere in the world under the 'global battlefield' legal theory and a radical redefinition of the concept of imminence," said Zeke Johnson, an Amnesty International official. "President Obama should reject these concepts in his speech tomorrow and commit to upholding human rights, not just in word but in deed."