The Audacity of Eric Holder's Letter Admitting Team Obama Killed 4 Americans

Its long overdue admissions are paired with praise for the president's supposed commitment to transparency.
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Attorney General Eric Holder has just sent a truly incredible letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. In it, he acknowledges that the U.S. has killed four of its own citizens in drone strikes. Casual news consumers may find that confusing. Hasn't there already been an extremely public debate about the killing of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman? Indeed, everyone knows that, despite the 5th Amendment, the Obama Administration believes it can target and kill American citizens without due process, and that it has done so.

But that hasn't stopped Team Obama from keeping what everyone knows officially classified, permitting them to broach the subject when convenient and to dodge it when inconvenient. Wednesday's revelation, first reported by the indispensable Charlie Savage of the New York Times, is therefore a good thing. Team Obama has dispensed with the absurd pretense that targeting Americans is a secret, and admitted that they've killed a total of 4 Americans with drones.

It's actually three other features of the letter that are incredible.

1) While a total of four Americans have been killed in drone strikes, the Obama Administration says that it was only targeting one of them. This is an important fact to remember the next time you're told that their drone campaign is one of "targeted killing" or "surgical precision," or that drones can linger in the air for hours to make sure that only the intended targets are being blown up. Critics of the drone war have long pointed out that lots of people die by American-fired Hellfire missile who were never targeted, and whose identities aren't known at the time of their death. What a powerful, irrefutable reminder of those facts. It is a discredit to the Obama Administration that they are just now going on the record with this powerful information.

2) While the letter notes that three of four Americans weren't specifically targeted, including a 16-year-old, the letter offers no explanation of why young Abdulrahman was in fact killed, and gives no indication that his death is problematic. The American people are owed a full explanation of how he wound up dead. "We weren't trying to kill the 16-year-old American we blew up" isn't sufficient explanation, its an admission that a thorough, transparent investigation is needed. 

3) In a letter that makes long overdue disclosures about facts that have long been public, and that could've been acknowledged months and months ago without doing any damage to national security, Holder has the chutzpah to write as if Team Obama is an enlightened model of transparency.

Now that you know what comes at the end of the letter, marvel at the beginning:

Since entering office, the President has made clear his commitment to providing Congress and the American people with as much information as possible about our sensitive counterterrorism operations, consistent with our national security and the proper functioning of the Executive Branch. Doing so is necessary, the President stated in his May 21, 2009 National Archives speech, because it enables the citizens of our democracy to "make informed judgments and hold [their Government] accountable."

In furtherance of this commitment, the Administration has provided an
unprecedented level of transparency into how sensitive counterterrorism operations are conducted. Several senior Administration officials, including myself, have taken numerous steps to explain publicly the legal basis for the United States' actions to the American people and the Congress. For example, in March 2012, I delivered an address at Northwestern University Law School discussing certain aspects of the Administration's counterterrorism legal framework. And the Department of Justice and other departments and agencies have continually worked with the appropriate oversight committees in the Congress to ensure that those committees are fully informed of the legal basis for our actions.

The Administration is determined to continue these extensive outreach efforts to
communicate with the American people. Indeed, the President reiterated in his State of the Union address earlier this year that he would continue to engage with the Congress about our counterterrorism efforts to ensure that they remain consistent with our laws and values, and become more transparent to the American people and to the world. To this end, the President has directed me to disclose certain information that until now has been properly classified.

The fact of the matter is that "the appropriate oversight committees in the Congress" have been frustrated by the Obama Administration's obstinate refusal to share information on many occasions, as Senator Ron Wyden can attest. In addition, while the President has "made clear his commitment" to sharing "as much information as possible" with Americans, he hasn't actually had or followed through on that commitment, as evidenced by the fact that he's just today decided to share information that many of us have known for months. At this late date in his tenure, it is worryingly delusional for Obama to hold himself out, through his subordinates, as a man every bit as committed to transparency as he was as a crusading presidential candidate.

His thinking has changed.

And that would be less insulting to the people he represents if he was honest about it. There is a lot more to the letter, including a more detailed defense of Anwar Awlaki's killing than has been previously offered, and the startling admission that the Obama Administration is institutionalizing the extraordinary assassination powers they've been wielding. These are probably better discussed after the speech on the War on Terrorism that President Obama is expected to give tomorrow. Let's hope it's less misleadingly self-congratulatory than Holder's letter.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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