Four American citizens have been killed since 2009 in drone attacks abroad, Attorney General Eric Holder disclosed in a Wednesday letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.. Three of the men "were not specifically targeted" for death, the letter says.
Holder confirmed that Anwar al-Awlaki, whose death in a September 2011 drone strike in Yemen was already widely known, was targeted for death by the U.S. government. Al-Awlaki, the administration determined, was a "continuing and imminent threat" who could not feasibly be captured.
The attorney general disclosed that al-Awlaki's death was planned more than a year before a drone-fired missile killed the al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula associate, and that congressional committees were notified of the preparations.
"Indeed, the Administration informed the relevant congressional oversight committees that it had approved the use of lethal force against [al-Awlaki] in February 2010," Holder says in the letter.
Al-Awlaki's alleged participation in the unsuccessful Dec. 25, 2009 bombing attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as an airplane landed in Detroit, and his alleged participation in an October 2010 plot to explode bombs on cargo jets showed he was a continuing threat, according to the letter.
U.S. citizen Samir Khan, a propagandist who edited the al-Qaida magazine Inspire, was killed alongside al-Awlaki in the drone attack.
Al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son Abdulrahman was also killed by a U.S. drone, the letter admits. His death, less than a month after his father was killed, was also widely known and was seen by some critics of the administration as an Old Testament-style smiting. Holder said the teenager was not targeted, but did not provide more details.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., ridiculed former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs's commentary that the older al-Awlaki should have been "a more responsible father" to spare his son, during his 13-hour filibuster in protest of Holder's tepid response to a question about the government's legal ability to kill American citizens with drone attacks inside the U.S., .
The fourth U.S. citizen killed was Jude Kenan Mohammed, who had travelled to Pakistan allegedly to fight alongside Muslim extremists. He was briefly on the FBI's "10 Most Wanted" list and was indicted in North Carolina in 2009 for allegedly planning terrorist attacks.
Last year The New York Times reported that John Brennan, now director of the CIA, which administers most of the secret drone attacks abroad, and President Barack Obama maintained a so-called "kill list" of individuals approved for death by drone strikes. In February The Times reported that a Justice Department "white paper" outlined the Obama administration's legal justification for killing U.S. citizens abroad without trial.
Holder's letter says Obama formalized recently the process of selecting targets abroad for drone attacks.
"This week the president approved, and relevant congressional committees will be notified and briefed on, a document that institutionalizes the administration's exacting standards and processes for reviewing and approving operations to capture or use lethal force against terrorist targets outside the United States," the letter says.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in February that around 4,700 people have been killed by U.S. drone attacks around the world during the so-called "war on terror." At least one American citizen was killed in an attack before 2009, Kamal Derwish, who was killed in Yemen in 2002.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is suing the government for documents about the drone program and for information regarding the killing of al-Awlaki, his son and Khan, said in a statement it's optimistic the disclosure will bring even more transparency.
"The government must disclose its still-secret targeted killing memos so the public can determine if they contain criteria as vague and elastic as its definitions of 'imminence' and 'feasibility of capture,'" said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project, in the statement. "The letter also underscores how little the public still knows about this unlawful program and its consequences, including the previously unknown killing of a fourth American citizen more than a year ago. It does nothing to shed light on the government's legal criteria and factual basis for the killings of thousands of non-citizens – including reportedly hundreds of civilians – in a program that is unlawful, dangerous, and unwise."