Obama defends drone strikes, reignites Gitmo debate in crucial speech

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U.S. drone strikes have killed four Americans, including one who was “specifically targeted” and three others who were not targets, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a letter to Congress on Wednesday, publicly confirming the strikes for the first time.

The revelation was made a day before President Obama lays out a drone policy in a major speech at the National Defense University, where he also is expected to reignite his push to transfer detainees from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which houses suspected terrorists.


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“He will discuss why the use of drone strikes is necessary, legal and just, while addressing the various issues raised by our use of targeted action,” a White House official said Wednesday night, previewing the remarks on the condition of anonymity.

The official also said Mr. Obama has signed guidance laying out the full standards for lethal strikes, and Mr. Holder said in his letter that classified guidance will be provided to some members of Congress.

After news reports last year revealed the extent of the drone strike program, Mr. Obama promised to seek firmer legal footing for the program by going to Congress with more details, and Wednesday’s letter was the first step in that.

In the five-page letter, Mr. Holder said the U.S. specifically targeted Anwar al-Awlaki in a September 2011 drone strike in Yemen. He also listed the three other Americans who he said had been incidentally killed in strikes: Samir Khan, Jude Kenan Mohammed and Abderrahman Anwar al-Awlaki, the targeted man’s son.

Mr. Holder called it “an unfortunate but undeniable fact” that Americans had been killed, but said U.S. citizenship doesn’t make someone immune from being targeted.

The drone executive program has been controversial since it began under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama expanded the program, but use of the strikes has begun to decline. The New York Times reported this year that strikes in Pakistan peaked in 2010, and strikes in Yemen this year are half the rate they were last year.

Still, members of Congress have demanded answers on the program, and Mr. Obama is preparing to give them details of how he decides who is placed on the targeted killing list. The administration will send Congress a classified document laying out details this week, and Mr. Obama will provide some public details Thursday.

In his letter Wednesday, Mr. Holder said the conditions for ending up on the target list are that the executive branch has determined “after a thorough and careful review” that the target poses “an imminent threat of violent attack” against the U.S., that the person cannot be captured, and that the operation falls under acceptable war practices.

He said al-Awlaki was put on the list because he encouraged and helped the Christmas Day bomber in 2009 and played a key role in an October 2010 plot to detonate explosives on two U.S.-bound cargo planes, including developing and testing the explosive devices.

“The decision to target Anwar al-Awlaki was lawful, it was considered, and it was just,” the attorney general said, adding that he, other Justice Department attorneys and “other departments and agencies” concluded that al-Awlaki was an appropriate target.

Mr. Holder said the administration gave “the relevant congressional committees” a heads-up that al-Awlaki was on the kill list in February 2010, more than a year before the fatal strike.

One of the other men killed, Mohammed, was indicted on charges of conspiracy to support terrorists and conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country. Mohammed grew up in North Carolina, where he reportedly trained for the attacks before going to Pakistan.

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