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Fourth American fatality by U.S. drones disclosed

Members of the New York Air National guard with a drone aircraft at Hancock Field in Syracuse. The Guard's fighter wing operates the unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

WASHINGTON — As President Obama prepared to deliver a major speech on national security Thursday, his administration acknowledged for the first time that it had killed four U.S. citizens — one more than previously known — in drone missile strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

The disclosure Wednesday raised fresh questions about the secret drone campaign, a signature part of Obama’s counter-terrorism effort, in which several thousand suspected terrorists, militants and others have been killed. The White House has insisted the targeting is precise and causes few accidental casualties.

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In a letter to congressional leaders, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said the administration had deliberately targeted Anwar Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was born in New Mexico and killed in Yemen in September 2011, and had killed three other Americans who were not targeted.

They include Samir Khan, an Al Qaeda propagandist who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and who was killed alongside Awlaki, and Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was born in Denver and killed in Yemen two weeks after his father. All three deaths were reported by the news media, but the administration had not previously admitted its role publicly.

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The fourth American was Jude Kenan Mohammad, killed in northwestern Pakistan in November 2011. His death remained so secret that he was still listed Wednesday as wanted by the FBI. Mohammad, who grew up near Raleigh, N.C., traveled to Pakistan in 2008 “to engage in violent jihad,” according to a 2009 federal indictment in North Carolina.

“These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States,” Holder wrote.

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Officials refused to provide details of Mohammad’s death. He may have been killed in a so-called signature strike, which targets a group of suspected militants whose names are not known. The administration has not publicly acknowledged such strikes.

The development raises the stakes for a long-awaited policy speech Obama is to give Thursday at the National Defense University. He faces growing pressure to explain the rationale for secret drone strikes, especially against U.S. citizens, and to outline his strategy against a weakened Al Qaeda.

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Obama, who in some cases personally approves individual drone strikes, has never revealed the legal framework his administration uses to select who is targeted and what evidence is considered. The targeted killings receive closed-door congressional oversight but no apparent judicial review.

The deaths of three Americans who weren’t specifically targeted suggests the process may be less accurate than authorities have indicated. Former White House counter-terrorism chief John Brennan, who now heads the CIA, insisted in June 2011 that for almost a year, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

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Obama’s speech comes as some lawmakers and outside experts question whether the political backlash created by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia outweighs the value of killing individual members or supporters of the Al Qaeda terrorist network, including those whom U.S. officials cannot identify.

A senior White House official said Obama “will discuss why the use of drone strikes is necessary, legal and just, while addressing the various issues raised by our use of targeted action.”

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The official, who asked not to be identified because the president hadn’t delivered the speech, said Obama would announce that he was signing new presidential policy guidance “that lays out the standards under which we take lethal action.”

Obama may also explain why the number of reported drone attacks — the official number has never been disclosed — has fallen sharply since last year. It’s unclear if the decline reflects new White House sensitivity about the policy, a lack of reliable intelligence on potential adversaries, or a sign that the CIA is running out of high-value targets.

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Several former senior White House aides have urged Obama to make the drone program more transparent and to shift more of the CIA’s drone fleet to the military, in part to allow the CIA to return to more traditional espionage pursuits.

In a May 7 speech at Oxford University in Britain, Harold Koh, who served as the State Department’s top lawyer in Obama’s first term, offered a sharp critique of the drone program. The policy, he said, “has not been sufficiently transparent to the media, to the Congress and to our allies.”

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The result, he said, is “a growing perception that the program is not lawful and necessary, but illegal, unnecessary and out of control.”

Critics of the drone strikes don’t expect Obama to announce dramatic policy changes.

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“My expectations are low,” said Rosa Brooks, who served in the Pentagon from 2009 to 2011. She said she would like Obama to ask Congress to establish an external review or judicial system for the targeted killings, but doesn’t think he’ll do so.

An administration official said Obama would outline specific steps he would take to close the terrorist camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a goal he set shortly after taking office in 2009.

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As a start, Obama may lift a ban on sending Yemeni prisoners home from Guantanamo Bay. U.S. authorities have cleared 86 of the 166 prisoners for transfer back to their home countries; 59 of the 86 are from Yemen.

Obama stopped the transfers after an Al Qaeda cell in Yemen tried to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner in December 2009, a plot that failed when a bomb hidden in the perpetrator’s underwear malfunctioned. Since then, U.S. and Yemeni authorities have killed numerous militants in Yemen, and the terrorist group has been significantly weakened.

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Civil liberties advocates hope Obama will call for public release of a secret 6,000-page report by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee about the CIA’s interrogation and detention program of a decade ago. The report concludes that then-harsh interrogations of Al Qaeda suspects — using waterboarding and other tactics that critics called torture — failed to yield useful intelligence.

The president “will review the state of the threats we face, particularly as the Al Qaeda core has weakened but new dangers have emerged,” a senior administration official said in a preview of the speech. “He will discuss the policy and legal framework under which we take action against terrorist threats, including the use of drones.”

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Obama also will “review our detention policy and efforts to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, and he will frame the future of our efforts against Al Qaeda.”

Obama also may discuss his views on investigating national security leaks. The Justice Department has prosecuted more leak cases than all previous administrations combined, and some journalists have come under what press advocates call unprecedented scrutiny.

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In one case, the FBI secretly obtained telephone records for two months from 20 telephone lines used by the Associated Press. In another, an FBI agent secretly read a Fox News reporter’s email after telling a judge the reporter might be guilty of espionage for asking a State Department contractor for information.

Administration officials also are pushing harder to try terrorism suspects in civilian courts rather than military tribunals. In March, federal judges in New York adjudicated three terrorism cases in which the suspects had been captured overseas.

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And on Wednesday, U.S. officials confirmed that the intelligence community has identified five suspects in last September’s attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. The administration, they said, has not sought to kill or capture the individuals as the FBI seeks enough evidence to arrest them on criminal charges.

ken.dilanian@latimes.com

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shashank.bengali@latimes.com


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