“I think it’s a significant effort at openness,” Leahy said. He said he also received a call from the White House inviting him to Obama’s Thursday speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair.
Others were less certain that critics would be satisfied.
“The desire to put this on a normal, rule-of-law footing keeps clashing with the imperatives of national security, which entail extreme institutional secrecy,” said Jack Goldsmith, former director of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. “That clash has been going on since the first day of the administration.”
Prior to the Obama administration, the only known American killed by a drone strike was Kamal Derwish, who died in a strike launched in Yemen in 2002 under President George W. Bush.
In September 2011, Obama announced the death of Awlaki, a New Mexico-born cleric described as the foreign operations director for Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP. Although Obama did not claim U.S. responsibility, the fact that Awlaki was killed by a CIA drone was one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington.
According to Holder’s letter, Awlaki was the only U.S. citizen the administration “has specifically targeted and killed.” Khan, who edited an AQAP online magazine that provided bomb-building instructions allegedly used to carry out the Boston Marathon attack, was not targeted but was at Awlaki’s side and killed in the same strike.
Two weeks after Awlaki’s death, his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman — who had gone to the Yemeni desert in search of his father — was killed in a drone strike meant for someone else. That strike was similarly unacknowledged, although a senior administration official privately characterized it as a “mistake.”
The fourth American death, Jude Kennan Mohammad, was previously unreported. According to an information sheet released by the Justice Department, the former North Carolina resident was charged in 2009 with conspiracy “to provide material support to terrorists, including currency, training, transportation and personnel” and “to murder, kidnap, maim and injure persons abroad.”
Mohammad had fled the United States for Pakistan in the fall of 2008. According to Pakistan news accounts, the 20-year-old Mohammad, whose father was Pakistani, was detained by authorities when he tried to enter a tribal region near the Afghan border but was later released.
Mohammad’s mother, Elena Mohammad, said in a telephone interview that she was aware that her son had been killed in a drone strike but that she got the news from people in Pakistan, not U.S. authorities. She said she had no details on when and where her son was killed.
“I dealt with that, and I don’t have to deal with it anymore because it’s already over with,” she said. “So whatever transpired I don’t want it back in my life anymore. It’s gone. There are no questions. I don’t have to hear any authorities; the FBI has finished coming to my house. It’s over. That’s it.”
In regard to Guantanamo, the large Yemeni population there — at least 84 of the 166 detainees — could be one area where Obama chooses to act. After the failed attempt to bomb a commercial plane over Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, a plot that was linked to Awlaki and AQAP, the president suspended all transfers of detainees to Yemen.
The government of Yemen and human rights groups have urged Obama to lift the moratorium and begin the staggered repatriation of some of these detainees. Of the Yemenis held at the military detention center in Cuba, 26 have been cleared for transfer and 30 others could be sent home if security conditions in the country improved, according to U.S. officials
Yemen President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi recently set up a detainee affairs committee made up of cabinet ministers and officials in the defense, intelligence and internal security agencies to manage any return and work with the United States to create and implement a resettlement plan, according to Mohammed Albasha, a spokesman for Yemen’s Embassy in Washington.
An additional 30 detainees of various nationalities were also cleared for transfer by an interagency task force in the first year of Obama’s first term but remain at the facility.
Greg Miller and Julie Tate contributed to this report.