The Obama administration has admitted for the first time to killing four U.S. citizens in drone strikes overseas. Three died in Yemen: the Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. A fourth, Jude Kenan Mohammad — whose death was not previously reported — was killed in Pakistan. In a letter to Congress, Attorney General Eric Holder suggested that all but the attack on the elder al-Awlaki were accidental, saying the other three "were not specifically targeted." The admission came on the eve of a major address in which President Obama is expected to defend the secret targeted killing program and announce modified guidelines for carrying it out. We’re joined by Jeremy Scahill, author of the new book, "Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield," and co-producer of the upcoming documentary film by the same name.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: For the first time, the Obama administration admitted Wednesday it had killed four U.S. citizens in drone strikes overseas. Three of the men were killed in Yemen: the Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. A fourth man, whose death was not previously reported, Jude Kenan Mohammad, was killed in Pakistan. The FBI had Mohammad listed on its Most Wanted page up until yesterday, even though he was secretly killed by the United States in 2011.
In a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said, of the four U.S. citizens, only Anwar al-Awlaki was specifically targeted. He said the other three citizens were, quote, "not specifically targeted by the United States." Holder gave no other details on their deaths. His letter also did not address the thousands of non-U.S. citizens who have been killed by U.S. drones. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, U.S. drone strikes have killed as many as 3,900 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2002. Most of the deaths occurred under President Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: White House officials say President Obama will defend the secret targeted killing program during his major speech today on counterterrorism. The New York Times reports Obama has signed a new classified policy guidance that would allow for drone strikes to continue in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but under a new set of rules. The Times reports the new standard could signal an end to signature strikes, which allowed for the killing of individuals based on behavior and other characteristics without knowing their actual identity.
For more, we go to Jeremy Scahill, author of the new book Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. He is also a producer and writer of the documentary film by the same title, Dirty Wars, which premieres in theaters around the country June 7th. He’s national security correspondent for The Nation, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, and is Democracy Now! correspondent, joining us by Democracy Now! video stream from the Sanctuary for Independent Media, a community media space in Troy, New York, where he spoke last night.
Jeremy, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you respond to the statement, the letter of the attorney general?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, well, I actually think, Amy, that it raises more questions than it answers. You know, Eric Holder, for the first time, admitted that the United States—well, he didn’t say "assassinated," I call it assassination—assassinated one of its own citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki. And, of course, he was born in the state of New Mexico and had been a prominent imam in the United States after 9/11 in Virginia and had condemned the 9/11 attacks. And he was a guy who really was radicalized by U.S. policy and ended up going back to his ancestral homeland of Yemen and started preaching against the United States. And beginning in mid-2009, the Obama administration had made a decision that it was going to try to take him out. And eventually, after numerous attempts to kill him with a drone strike, the Americans succeeded in killing him on September 30th, 2011.
And so, in Eric Holder’s letter, he talks about how Anwar Awlaki was actively involved in imminent plots against the United States, that he had directed the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up a U.S. airplane over the city of Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. And what’s interesting is that all of these allegations are made by Eric Holder, but no actual evidence has ever been presented against Awlaki to indicate that he played the role that Eric Holder is asserting. His trial was basically just litigated through leaks in the press. He was never indicted on any of these charges. And Holder, in fact, in his letter, says that we have all of this evidence, but it’s too dangerous to be made public. And so, there’s really a continuation of posthumous trial of Anwar Awlaki through leaks and now through this letter from Eric Holder.
On the issue of the other Americans that were killed, you know, Jude Mohammad was a suspect who had been indicted, and his family was contesting those charges. And we don’t know the circumstances over how he was killed. Samir Khan, who was a Pakistani American from North Carolina, was killed alongside Anwar Awlaki. My understanding is that there was a grand jury convened, and they’d failed to return an indictment against him, so he was actually someone where they looked at trying to charge him with a crime and failed to get an indictment against him. His family, in fact, was told by the FBI before his death that there were no criminal charges pending against him. So he was another American killed. And perhaps the most disturbing is the killing of Abdulrahman Awlaki’s, Anwar Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, who was killed two weeks after his father while he was sitting having dinner with his teenage cousins.
And in the letter, Eric Holder says that besides Anwar al-Awlaki, the other three Americans were—and he used an interesting phrase—"not specifically targeted." You know, what does that phrase mean? It’s almost like an Orwellian statement, "not specifically targeted." Well, it could mean that these individuals were killed in the signature strikes that you mentioned, which is a sort of form of precrime, where the U.S. determines that any military-aged males in a targeted area are in fact terrorists, and their deaths will be registered as having killed terrorists or militants. So, it’s possible that the other Americans that were killed were killed were killed in these so-called signature strikes.
But in the case of this 16-year-old boy, it’s almost impossible to believe that it’s a coincidence that two weeks after his father is killed, he just happens to be killed in a U.S. drone strike. And there were leaks at the time from U.S. officials telling journalists that, oh, he actually was 21 years old, he was at an al-Qaeda meeting. But they’ve never been able to identify who they killed in that strike. And the Obama administration has never publicly taken on the fact that they killed one of their own citizens who was a teenage boy. There are no answers to that question. So, I think that there has to be a far more intense scrutiny of the statements of the attorney general and also what we understand the president is going to say later.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jeremy, in his letter to Congress, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said of the four Americans killed by drones that only Anwar al-Awlaki was specifically targeted by those drones. But during his appearance on Rachel Maddow’s show, Jeh Johnson, a former Pentagon general counsel, was asked if this means the other three Americans were effectively killed by accident. This was his response.
RACHEL MADDOW: They’re effectively saying it was an accident.
JEH JOHNSON: We’re effectively saying that they were not targeted as part of those specific operations.
RACHEL MADDOW: But killed anyway.
JEH JOHNSON: But they were obviously killed.
RACHEL MADDOW: Doesn’t that—shouldn’t that afford their families some kind of recourse?
JEH JOHNSON: That is a very good question. I think you should put that to the Department of Justice.
RACHEL MADDOW: If I were putting it to you as a lawyer in private practice who knows from these things, what would you say?
JEH JOHNSON: Like I said, it’s an interesting question. It doesn’t come up too often in my private practice. But it’s an important question. And as you probably know, Anwar Awlaki’s father brought a second lawsuit, after his son was killed, for wrongful death, seeking damages for the loss of his son and his grandson. And I believe that lawsuit is still pending right now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Jeh Johnson, former Pentagon general counsel. Jeremy, your response? And also, your sense of what this upcoming trial might—might reveal?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, you know, it’s interesting that when Rachel Maddow is sort of pushing him and saying, "So you’re saying that this was an accident," he doesn’t say, "Yes, it was an accident." He says they were not specifically targeted as part of that operation. I’m not even sure what he means by that, because I think it’s telling that he’s parsing words in that way. I think it’s quite possible that—as I said, that this was a signature strike or some other form of a strike that we’re not aware of, because they’re not coming out and actually saying, you know, "Oops, this was an accident that we killed these Americans." They’re using these terms that really are sort of Orwellian.
The other thing to remember is, when the Department of Justice white paper was leaked shortly before John Brennan had his confirmation hearings, what we learned was that the Justice Department and the administration lawyers had redefined the term "imminent" to describe an imminent threat against the United States. And what they said is that if anyone had been involved with past plots against the United States, that they would be considered an imminent threat to the United States. So, what they’re doing is redefining terms and making it so that they don’t have to actually own the fact that they’ve killed their own citizens. I mean, is someone specifically targeted if you are intending to kill them because of a belief or a principle that any military-age male in a certain region is a legitimate target? That would fall under the rhetoric of both Jeh Johnson and of the Eric Holder letter.
So, I mean, I really think that Congress needs to step it up and ask how these Americans were killed. But I also think that, on both a moral level and, my understanding, also on a legal level, it really is irrelevant whether they’re Americans or not Americans. Why I think it’s important to focus on these cases is because how a society will treat its own citizens is a good indicator of how it’s going to treat noncitizens around the world. And if the basic standards of due process are not being afforded to American citizens, then they certainly are not going to be afforded to non-American citizens. So I see this as a very high-stakes issue that we’re facing right now, and we have a Congress that largely is failing to ask the right questions.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, we wanted to go back to Jeh Johnson, the former Pentagon general counsel, being questioned by Rachel Maddow on her show on MSNBC. He said Holder’s letter set forth this new standard for the U.S.’s counterterrorism activity.
JEH JOHNSON: That the individual must be a continuing and imminent threat to Americans, and that capture should not be feasible—those standards, previously, were only in place when it comes to U.S. citizens. And what the letter discloses is that, from this point forward—and this has probably been in place for a while now—that standard will be in place for any targeted lethal force off the so-called hot battlefield. And that’s a—that’s a pretty rigorous standard.
And I think it’s an acknowledgment that we are moving to a different phase in our counterterrorism efforts. We’ve been in a so-called armed conflict now for almost the last 12 years, since—since 9/11, that has involved the U.S. military. It’s involved other assets of the U.S. government. And we’re now in a different phase. Some call it an inflection point, where core al-Qaeda has been effectively disseminated, captured or killed. And we see splinter groups. We see affiliates in North Africa, in other places. And so, I think what you’re seeing now is an acknowledgment that we need to move away from conventional armed conflict to the more traditional approaches to counterterrorism, where you have intelligence assets, law enforcement assets, the military in reserve, and the bar is going to be really high when it comes to targeted lethal force.
RACHEL MADDOW: You have—
JEH JOHNSON: So that is—to me, that is actually probably, going forward, the most significant thing in the attorney general’s letter.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the former Pentagon general counsel, Jeh Johnson, speaking to Rachel Maddow. Jeremy Scahill, your response to what he’s saying?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, when you redefine the term "imminent threat," then, you know, sort of anything goes. And so, you know, I take all of this with a grain of salt. I mean, some of this looks good on paper, and I think that it’s going to win praise from a lot of liberals, and it will probably draw the ire of conservatives. But the issue is this, Amy: The president, like his predecessors Bush and Cheney, has asserted the right to strike in any country around the world and has effectively subscribed to the doctrine that the world is the battlefield. And so, as long as that remains on the books, that the United States says, "Well, we’re different than every other nation around the world, in that we have the right to strike in any country where we perceive an imminent threat, and 'imminent' has been redefined in our secret proceedings inside the White House or the Justice Department," then none of this is going to fundamentally change.
There is a debate right now going on in the Congress about whether or not to make permanent some version of what was called the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. This was the blank check passed by Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that authorized U.S. forces to hunt down those with a connection to the 9/11 attacks wherever they were found in the world. Only one member of Congress voted against that at the time, Barbara Lee, and people should listen to the speech that she gave just days after 9/11, because she saw a lot of this coming, this sort of perpetual state of war.
So, when you take—when you take the fact that the—when you take the fact that the United States has both Republican and Democratic presidents that assert that the world is a battlefield, and you have a popular Democratic president, constitutional lawyer by trade, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, who is trying to streamline and create a sort of permanent infrastructure for conducting assassination operations, then whether they’re sort of tweaking it and they have a drone court or they’re saying, "Well, we’re going to use these redefined definitions of 'imminent' to determine who we can strike and who we can’t strike," then really what it’s doing is just sort of ensuring that this is going to continue on in perpetuity. So, you know, I think that there’s a bit of a dog and pony show going on here. Despite the fact that there are these overtures to the anti-targeted-killing or -assassination crowd, where they’re trying to say, "Well, we’re going to do this in a cleaner way," the whole thing has just been one massive dirty operation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Jeremy, on the same day that Attorney General Holder admitted for the first time that the U.S. had killed Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, the Justice Department also dropped its effort to throw out a lawsuit seeking documents related to his death. Oral arguments are scheduled this July in that lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the attacks. Anwar al-Awlaki’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki, spoke earlier this year about the U.S. killing of his 16-year-old grandson by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen on October 14, 2011. The attack came as the Denver-born teenager was eating dinner with his teenage cousin. He was killed just weeks after his father was assassinated. This is Nasser al-Awlaki.
NASSER AL-AWLAKI: I want Americans to know about my grandson, that he was very nice boy. He was very caring boy for his family, for his mother, for his brothers. He was born in August 1995 in the state of Colorado, city of Denver. He was raised in America, when he was a child until he was seven years old. And I never thought that one day this boy, this nice boy, will be killed by his own government.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Nasser al-Awlaki, and this was a CCR-ACLU tape. Jeremy, your response?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, this is a very important lawsuit that’s been brought by Dr. Nasser al-Awlaki. And I should say, in full disclosure, I’ve gotten to know that family very well. I’ve spent time with most of the members of the Awlaki family in their home in Sana’a on numerous visits. There is—there is not a shred of evidence to indicate that Abdulrahman Awlaki, this teenager, had anything whatsoever to do with terrorism. And yet, he was killed in this drone strike that the White House has not come forward and said, "This is who we killed, and this is why this boy was killed." They’ve made no explanation.
All we have are the statements from people like Senator Harry Reid, who is the Senate majority leader. When asked about the killing of these three Americans, including the 16-year-old boy, he said, "If there are three Americans that deserve to be killed, it was those three." When I tried to get him to comment on why he believed that the 16-year-old would be killed, he did not respond. His office did not respond. This is a man who is operating at the highest levels of the legislative branch of the U.S. government. Robert Gibbs, who was the White House press secretary, was asked about the killing—former White House press secretary who then was a spokesman for the Obama campaign in 2012, was asked about the killing of Abdulrahman Awlaki. And his answer was, "He should have had a more responsible father," which is really reprehensible to blame the killing of a child on who their parent was. And you’ve had absolute silence from the Obama White House as to why this young man was killed. And, you know, for them to use a term like "not specifically targeted" without defining what they mean by that term, really, I think, undermines any sense of due process or judicial process for not just this American teenager, but for all who are being targeted in these operations.
So, my broader concern about this is that this White House, in the face of lawsuits brought by the families of these American citizens—even before Anwar Awlaki was killed, his father had filed a lawsuit trying to compel the government to present actual evidence that his son was involved with these terror plots, and the Obama administration and the Justice Department intervened in the case and they filed briefs saying that the evidence is too sensitive to be made public. They had declarations from CIA Director Panetta, from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, from then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, all saying that if we present evidence against Anwar Awlaki, it will threaten the very national security of the United States. And this was a classic Cheney and Bush tactic that’s then being used by the constitutional lawyer president, Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, we have 10 seconds.
JEREMY SCAHILL: So, you know, I mean, in the end, I think that the stakes are going to be very high in this case. And it will be interesting to see if the Obama administration tries to quash these lawsuits by hiding behind state secrets.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, speaking to us from Troy, New York, from the Sanctuary of Independent Media. Special thanks to Steve Pierce. Jeremy is author of the new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. And he’s producer and writer of a documentary by the same name, which is opening in theaters around the country on June 7th. He’s national security correspondent for The Nation, correspondent for Democracy Now!, his previous book called Blackwater.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll be joined by the Guatemalan human rights activist Helen Mack. Stay with us.