(Bloomberg) –– U.S. drone strikes have killed four American citizens in counterterrorism operations overseas since 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder said today, marking the Obama administration’s first public acknowledgment of those targeted killings.
Holder, in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said the U.S. “specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen,” al-Qaeda propagandist Anwar Al-Awlaki, and the government is aware of three other citizens killed since 2009.
The letter was sent the day before President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a speech on national security. Obama will “soon be speaking publicly about our counterterrorism operations and the legal and policy framework that governs those actions,” Holder said.
Lawmakers in both parties, along with human rights groups, have pressed the administration to disclose information about government’s targeting of suspected terrorists outside the U.S. Under the secretive program, unmanned aircraft have been used to kill enemy combatants in countries from Pakistan to Yemen.
Obama promised in his February State of the Union address to explain to Congress and the public 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.
The program came under closer scrutiny during the Senate confirmation of Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan, who was an architect of the drone policy while serving as Obama’s counterterrorism chief. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, staged a 13-hour filibuster in early March over the issue that stalled a final vote on Brennan’s nomination.
During his filibuster, Paul had pressed the administration to say whether the president had the authority to use drone strikes on U.S. soil against Americans suspected of being a terrorist. Holder responded in a letter to Paul that the president would not have that power, clearing the way for Brennan’s March 7 confirmation.
Holder said in his letter today that members of Congress will soon get more details about the program. Lawmakers will be briefed about a document recently approved by Obama that “institutionalizes” the standards and processes for approving operations to capture or use lethal force against terrorist targets outside the U.S., Holder said.
The letter, which also was sent to congressional leadership in the House and Senate and the senior members of the House and Senate Judiciary, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Relations and Defense committees, outlines pieces of a framework that dictates U.S. counterterrorism actions.
The classified standards approved by Obama are “already in place or are to be transitioned into place,” Holder said.
“When capture is not feasible, the policy provides that lethal force may be used only when a terrorist target poses a continuing, imminent threat to Americans, and when certain other preconditions, including a requirement that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat, are satisfied,” said Holder, who first provided the broad outlines of the U.S. targeted killing policy in March 2012 speech at Northwestern University’s law school.