The Killed-at-16 Transparency Test: Obama Owes Us Answers About This Dead American

What is the White House hiding about the demise of a boy they say they didn't target but admit to blowing up?
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Last week, President Obama declassified the fact that four American citizens have been killed in U.S. drone strikes "to facilitate transparency and debate on this issue," according to his speech. The fact that he could do so without harming national security raises the question of why that information wasn't made available sooner. Better late than never, I suppose. But Americans still don't know why one of those Americans, a 16-year-old youth, was killed. What is oversight for if not finding that out? Islamist "militants" attacked a CIA compound in Benghazi and Congress is all over it. U.S. missiles kill an American citizen whose name didn't appear on Team Obama's kill list, and no one cares to establish exactly what went wrong? When is transparency important if not in cases like this?

In an essay that delved into the 16-year-old's death, Tom Junod explained why his killing is a mystery:

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki wasn't on an American kill list. Nor was he a member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Nor was he 'an inspiration,' as his father styled himself, for those determined to draw American blood; nor had he gone 'operational,' as American authorities said his father had, in drawing up plots against Americans and American interests. He was a boy who hadn't seen his father in two years, since his father had gone into hiding. He was a boy who knew his father was on an American kill list and who snuck out of his family's home in the early morning hours of September 4, 2011, to try to find him. He was a boy who was still searching for his father when his father was killed, and who, on the night he himself was killed, was saying goodbye to the second cousin with whom he'd lived while on his search... He was a boy among boys, then; a boy among boys eating dinner by an open fire along the side of a road when an American drone came out of the sky and fired the missiles that killed them all.

As if that weren't reason enough to aggressively pursue answers, if only to prevent a wrong of this gravity from happening again, we've had two dark statements about the death from Obama insiders.

Jeremy Scahill, who provides the most exhaustively reported account of Abdulrahman's death, reports:

A former senior official in the Obama administration told me that after Abdulrahman's killing, the president was "surprised and upset and wanted an explanation." The former official, who worked on the targeted killing program, said that according to intelligence and Special Operations officials, the target of the strike was al-Banna, the AQAP propagandist. "We had no idea the kid was there. We were told al-Banna was alone," the former official told me. Once it became clear that the teenager had been killed, he added, military and intelligence officials asserted, "It was a mistake, a bad mistake." However, John Brennan, at the time President Obama's senior adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, "suspected that the kid had been killed intentionally and ordered a review. I don't know what happened with the review."
If I were a senator and saw that a senior official in the Obama Administration said (after departing) that its highest counterterrorism official thought an innocent kid had been killed intentionally in a drone strike, I would investigate! Especially since, if the account is accurate, Brennan thinks it is at least possible to wrongly target an individual American for death in a way that would surprise both he and Obama after the fact. How? If that doesn't warrant scrutiny, what does?

There was also an anonymous official quoted in a 2012 Washington Post story who called the 16-year-old's killing "an outrageous mistake .... They were going after the guy sitting next to him." Aren't outrageous mistakes that wrongly kill someone the sort of thing we usually investigate?

And don't forget the infamous outburst from Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary, who, having moved over to Obama's reelection campaign, responded thusly to a question on the 16-year-old: "I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children." That's the sort of explanation given when there isn't any defensible explanation to give.

As Marcy Wheeler notes, a "senior administration official" was also very cagey about the 16-year-old's death when doing a press briefing pegged to Obama's recent "I'm morally nuanced" speech. Here's the transcript put out by the White House (emphasis added):
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. When Anwar Awlaki was targeted in Yemen and his 16-year-old son was killed who was also an American citizen, I'm just wondering how do you see this?  Do you see it as collateral damage or guilty by association?  Where does he fall in terms of being just the son of Anwar Awlaki?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure, I'll just say a couple of things. First of all, as was made clear in the letter yesterday, Anwar Awlaki was the one U.S. citizen who was targeted for direct lethal action by the United States.  And the purpose of that decision was rooted in the fact that Anwar Awlaki posed a continuing and imminent threat to the United States as a chief of external operations for AQAP, as somebody who had played a role in plots like the Christmas Day attack, like the effort to blow up cargo planes headed for the United States, and in ongoing plotting against the United States.

In those other instances, I don't want to get into the details of each of those instances. What I will say generally is that there are times when there are individuals who are present at al Qaeda and associated forces facilities, and in that regard they are subject to the lethal action that we take.  There are other instances when there are tragic cases of civilian casualties and people that the United States does not in any way intend to target -- because, again, as in any war, there are tragic consequences that come with the decision to use force, including civilian casualties.

Are those "general" statements hints or misdirection?

The administration insists that it conducts copious reviews in the aftermath of drone strikes and always does due diligence helping Congress to fulfill its oversight responsibilities. Either they're lying about that, or there's a report pertaining to the drone strike that killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. It should be declassified and shown to the American people. As I see it, a good rule of thumb is that if you wrongly kill an American citizen who also happens to be a minor, you lose the prerogative to keep what you did or how it happened a secret, especially if you then repeatedly tell Americans how much you value transparency and debate.

In that sense, this is a test -- when Obama said in his speech that he sought to "facilitate transparency and debate on this issue," were those just words? Or will he back them up?
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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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