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US Officially Acknowledges Drone Strike Killings


FILE- photograph of an unmanned U.S. Predator B drone, taken November 8, 2011.

FILE- photograph of an unmanned U.S. Predator B drone, taken November 8, 2011.

The Obama administration on Wednesday formally acknowledged the killing of four Americans in drone strikes. This came on the eve of a speech by President Barack Obama about the legal principles, since 2009, supporting use of drones against terrorist suspects, and about detention policies.

The use of drone warfare and targeted killings, including of Americans helping al-Qaida or affiliates, stirred major controversy during President Obama's first term and continues in his second.

After an intense review he ordered, Obama has been moving toward a major speech to provide a fuller explanation of his policies, and demonstrate he is fulfilling pledges for more transparency.

In his State of the Union address, he said the United States will continue to use "a range of capabilities" against terrorists, as a way to avoid sending tens of thousands of troops to confront al-Qaida and affiliates.

He signaled that Americans and Congress would hear more about, what he called, a "durable and legal policy framework."

"In the months ahead, I will continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world," said President Obama.

Ahead of Thursday's speech, White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to discuss specifics, but said Obama recognizes the importance of clarity and has tried to meet the high bar he set for himself on transparency.

"It is one around which he believes there have been and continue to be legitimate questions asked. He is very concerned about the need to put an architecture in place that governs counterterrorism policy for now and into the future," said Carney.

On the eve of the speech, the Obama administration acknowledged for the first time that four American citizens have been killed in drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

One of those was Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Muslim cleric killed in Yemen in 2011. The administration said three others killed, including Awlaki's son, were not "specifically targeted by the United States."

Attorney General Eric Holder and other administration officials have already discussed in considerable detail much of what Obama is likely to say.

At Northwestern University in 2012, Holder said the U.S. government has clear legal authority to act against individuals posing an imminent lethal threat, including Americans who take up arms against the United States.

"When such individuals take up arms against this country, and join al-Qaida in plotting attacks designed to kill their fellow Americans, there may be only one realistic and appropriate response. We must take steps to stop them - in full accordance with the Constitution. In this hour of danger, we simply cannot afford to wait until deadly plans are carried out - and we will not," said Holder.

At Britain's Oxford University, then-Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson said President Obama insists that U.S. policy be based on clear legal principles.

"President Obama - himself a lawyer and a good one - has insisted that our efforts in pursuit of this enemy stay firmly rooted in conventional legal principles," said Johnson. "For, in our efforts to destroy and dismantle al-Qaida, we cannot dismantle our laws and our values, too."

On detention policy, President Obama is likely to reiterate his determination to close the U.S. military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He has acknowledged disappointment in failing to do so during his first term, largely blaming opposition from U.S. lawmakers.

Laura Pitter is a counterterrorism adviser with Human Rights Watch.

"We're hoping that in the speech he makes clear that he is still committed to that and perhaps will start transferring some of the detainees out of that facility, especially to Yemen, where the largest majority of the detainees currently slated for release are from," said Pitter.

Pitter says a hunger strike by detainees, and methods used to force-feed prisoners, put the Guantanamo issue back on the political agenda ahead of Obama's speech.

She says Obama could use waiver authority to bypass some congressional restrictions on transferring detainees, and end indefinite detention without trial, but will need to re-engage with Congress.

On drone policy, Reuters and other news organizations quoted unidentified U.S. officials as saying the Obama administration may transfer some drone operations from the CIA to the Pentagon.

This has been a major issue of debate within the administration. One outcome of such a step would be opening drone operations to greater congressional scrutiny. It is not known if Obama will announce this on Thursday.

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