President Barack Obama is set to at least partially bring out into the open some of the U.S.-directed drone program, a key component of counterterrorism strategy, as he outlines the contours of the continuing threat to American security.
On the eve of the president's speech at the National Defense University, the Obama administration revealed for the first time that a fourth American citizen had been killed in secretive drone strikes abroad. The killings of three other Americans in counterterror operations since 2009 were widely known before a letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy acknowledged the four deaths.
The speech Thursday also is expected to reaffirm his 2008 campaign promise to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, where terror suspects have been held. The speech will announce the resumption of transfers from the prison to other countries.
The White House said Wednesday that Obama's speech coincides with the signing of new "presidential policy guidance" on when the U.S. can use drone strikes, though it was unclear what that guidance entailed and whether Obama would outline its specifics in his remarks.
Chief among the speech's topics, officials said, is the administration's expanded use of unmanned spy drones to kill hundreds of people in Pakistan, Yemen and other places where terrorists have taken refuge.
Obama has pledged to be more open with the public about the scope of the drone strikes. But a growing number of lawmakers in Congress are seeking to limit U.S. authorities that support the deadly drone strikes, which have targeted a wider range of threats than initially anticipated.
The president is expected to talk generally about the need for greater transparency in the drone strikes and may allude to the desire to give greater responsibility for those operations to the military. But he is likely to tread carefully on an issue that involves classified CIA operations.
The speech comes amid growing impatience in Congress with the sweeping authority it gave the president after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in light of the targeting of suspected terrorists with lethal drone strikes.
Republicans and Democrats fear that they have given the president a blank check for using military force worldwide.
The U.S. military has begun to take over the bulk of the strikes, replacing the CIA in nearly all areas except Pakistan, according to an administration official who was not authorized to discuss the plans on the record and spoke on condition of anonymity. That shift in responsibility has given Congress greater oversight of the secretive program.
Obama "believes that we need to be as transparent about a matter like this as we can, understanding that there are national security implications to this issue and to the broader issues involved in counterterrorism policy," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday.
"He thinks (this) is an absolutely valid and legitimate and important area of discussion and debate and conversation, and that it is his belief that there need to be structures in place that remain in place for successive administrations," Carney said. "So that in the carrying out of counterterrorism policy, procedures are followed that allow it to be conducted in a way that ensures that we're keeping with our traditions and our laws."
In a letter Wednesday to congressional leaders, Holder said only one of the U.S. citizens killed in counterterror operations beyond war zones _ Anwar al-Awlaki, who had ties to at least three attacks planned or carried out on U.S. soil _ was specifically targeted by American forces. He said the other three Americans were not targeted in the U.S. strikes.
The deaths of three of the four, including al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, were already known. Holder's letter revealed the killing of Jude Kenan Mohammad, who was indicted by federal authorities in 2009 as part of an alleged homegrown terror plot to attack the U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virginia. Before he could be arrested, authorities said, Mohammad fled the country to join jihadi fighters in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
For months Congress has urged Obama to release a classified Justice Department legal opinion justifying when U.S. counterterror missions, including drone strikes, can be used to kill American citizens abroad.
Holder's letter said lethal force will be used only against targets who pose "a continuing, imminent threat to Americans" and cannot feasibly be captured.
Several lawmakers declined immediate comment Wednesday on Holder's letter or Obama's speech.
Human rights watchdogs, however, were not immediately appeased.
Human Rights First legal director Dixon Osburn welcomed the White House's pledge for more transparency but remained "deeply concerned that the administration appears to be institutionalizing a problematic targeted killing policy without public debate on whether the rules are lawful or appropriate."
"The American public deserves to know whether the administration is complying with the law, and Congress should debate the legal and policy implications of our targeted killing operations," Osburn said in a statement.
In re-affirming his pledge to close the detention center at Guantanamo, Obama will push in the speech for a renewed effort to transfer its 166 detainees to other countries. Congress and the White House have sparred since Obama took office in 2009 over the fate of the suspects and whether they can be brought to trial on U.S. soil. In the meantime, the detainees have been held for years with diminishing hope that they will charged with a crime or be given a trial.
This week, the Pentagon asked Congress for more than $450 million for maintaining and upgrading the Guantanamo prison. More than 100 of the prisoners have launched a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detention, and the military earlier this month was force-feeding 30 of them to keep them from starving to death.