White House says drone strikes have killed four US citizens

Eric Holder acknowledges previously classified details of drone program and says US deliberately targeted Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in Yemen in 2011

Holder claimed Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in Yemen in 2011, had been involved in plots to blow up planes over US soil. Photograph: Yahya Arhab/EPA

The White House has launched a new effort to draw a line under its controversial drone strike policy by admitting for the first time that four American citizens were among those killed by its covert attacks in Yemen and Pakistan since 2009.

In a letter to congressional leaders sent on Wednesday, attorney general Eric Holder acknowledged previously classified details of the drone attacks and promised to brief them on a new US doctrine for sanctioning such targeted killings in future.

Holder claimed one of the US citizens killed, Anwar al-Awlaki, was chief of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) and had been involved in plots to blow up airplanes over US soil. However, Holder said three others killed by drones – Samir Khan, Abdul Rahman Anwar al-Awlaki and Jude Kenan – were not “specifically targeted”. The second of these victims, Anwar al-Awlaki’s son, is said by campaigners to have been 16 when he died in Yemen in 2011.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 240 and 347 people have been killed in total by confirmed US drone strikes in Yemen since 2002, with a further 2,541 to 3,533 killed by CIA drones in Pakistan.

Amid mounting concern that the policy has harmed US interests overseas, President Obama is expected to give a major speech on his counter-terrorism strategy at the National Defense University in Washington on Thursday, marking the start of a concerted effort to better justify and explain the killings.

“The president will soon be speaking publicly in greater detail about our counterterrorism operations and the legal and policy framework,” Holder told 22 senior members of Congress in Wednesday’s letter.

“This week the president approved a document that institutionalises 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 and areas of active hostilities.”

The attorney general said this document would remain classified, but relevant congressional committees would be briefed on its contents. No further details were given of other killings in the five-page letter.

Earlier, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama would also outline his renewed attempt to shut the Guantánamo Bay detention centre in the speech and seek to explain why previous efforts had failed.

After a week in which Obama has been accused of failing to deal openly with crises such as the the targeting of Tea Party activists by the Internal Revenue Service, the White House hope it can defuse concern over drones and Guantánamo by being more transparent about its objectives.

Dan Roberts in Washington
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 23 May 2013 14.20 BST

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