Two U.S. officials, again speaking on the condition of anonymity, suggested in the days after the strike that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was in his 20s, calling him a “military-age male.” Such a description, under the laws of war, might make it easier to justify his killing.
On Tuesday, however, Awlaki’s family released a copy of his U.S. birth certificate showing that he turned 16 on Aug. 26.
Defense Department officials declined to answer questions about the airstrike or say whether any official investigations or reviews were underway.
“We do not discuss the specifics of our operations,” said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
Kenneth S. McGraw, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command in Tampa, referred queries to the U.S. Central Command, the joint headquarters responsible for operations in Yemen.
Maj. T.G. Taylor, a Central Command spokesman, also declined to talk about the Oct. 14 airstrike. “Anytime we conduct operations, it’s of utmost importance to us to avoid civilian casualties or collateral damage,” Taylor said.
The State Department said Tuesday that it could not confirm the younger Awlaki’s death. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, declined to comment, although he spoke in general terms about the dangers of U.S. citizens traveling in Yemen.
The younger Awlaki was the third U.S. citizen killed by the U.S. government in Yemen in recent weeks. The Obama administration has said that U.S. citizens do not have immunity from being targeted for death if they are al-Qaeda members. In addition to the elder Awlaki, the Sept. 30 CIA drone attack killed Samir Khan, an al-Qaeda propagandist from Charlotte.
All individuals targeted by the JSOC must be approved in advance by the National Security Council, said a senior U.S. official. Afterward, the JSOC files detailed reports through the Special Operations Command and then to the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.
By comparison, the CIA’s covert armed drone program has come to be treated as an open secret in Washington — not formally acknowledged, but defended and described in abundant detail by U.S. officials in unofficial conversations.
Congressional officials said that if the Oct. 14 strike had been executed by the CIA, the Senate and House intelligence committees would likely have been notified right away. On Thursday, military officials presented a closed briefing on the JSOC airstrike to members of the Senate Armed Services committee. Members of the panel declined to discuss details.
Members of the House Armed Services Committee would not say whether the panel had been briefed or was reviewing the 16-year-old’s death.
Staff writers Greg Jaffe and Greg Miller contributed to this report.