Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to Congress officially disclosing that the U.S. has droned four Americans, including the targeted killing of American cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki. Holder writes to Congress as if he is throwing open some magical drone castle doors so that sunshine can stream through onto U.S. actions somehow glorifying death by drone as the perfect warfare, both just and merciful.
It might be easier to read Holder's explanations with a straight face if they weren't prefaced by two paragraphs of self-serving dribble about the administration's supposed "commitment to transparency" and written after years of ludicrous fake secrecy whereby Holder, assassination playbook author and now-CIA Director John O. Brennan, and the President himself would speechify on drone strikes and have their minions anonymously leak selected portions while the Justice Department simultaneously argued in court that the administration "cannot confirm or deny" even the existence of the drone program.
The fact is, the Obama administration touted al-Awlaki's death as an intelligence victory and anonymously leaked the legal justification for it to favored media outlets years ago, so his targeting and death were hardly revelatory. Now that the drone strikes, spying on journalists and complete abandonment of any effort to close Guantanamo have become controversial enough to distract the White House, Holder sends this letter and Obama tees up a speech, apparently expecting a cookie from the open government community for this pathetic crumb of transparency and silent acceptance from critics now they were given another small sliver of partial information.
The biggest revelation in Holder's letter - that the U.S. has droned a fourth American, Jude Kenen Mohammed - is also the greatest of many deficiencies. All Holder says is the U.S. killed but didn't target these two American men (Mohammed and Samir Kahn) and one American child (al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son).
Holder then goes on to explain the legal justifications for targeting and killing al-Awlaki, protesting that all of the Justice Department's criteria are consistent, when in fact they are not, nor do they line up with Brennan's criteria (read about that here). The administration's defense of its unilateral right to target and kill American citizen al-Awlaki in secret evolves with each new speech. Here I debated New York Times' reporter Scott Shane on the last time the Obama administration changed its tune on al-Awaki:
Holder's newest rationale provides more accusations about al-Awlaki posing an "imminent threat" (that's the Justice Department white paper definition of imminent, not the dictionary definition), allegations that are far from credible considering that al-Awlaki's name was on the "kill list" long enough for the ACLU to bring a lawsuit to have the name removed.
But Holder's new argument of how al-Awlaki met his criteria - or at least the criteria he's presented this time around - provides no insight whatsoever into how three other Americans ended up getting killed by drones. If they weren't "targeted," then the public can guess (since Holder doesn't say), they were apparently acceptable collateral damage in some other targeted strike or perhaps a "signature strike" aimed an unknown group of people suspected of being associated with terrorism. One anonymous official admitted that killing al-Awlaki's son was a mistake, but that doesn't explain the deaths of Khan and Mohammed, both of whom appear to be propagandists, not operatives.
If Holder wants to draw a distinction between Americans that the U.S. government targets and kills without due process and those Americans that the U.S. government kills without due process but doesn't target, then the American people are entitled to know the legal basis for when the government finds it acceptable to make Americans collateral damage in the legally-unsustainable, morally-reprehensible unilateral drone drops.
Until the Obama administration realizes that a real commitment to government transparency is more than releasing - or anonymously leaking - selected tidbits when politically expedient, letters like Holder's will appear to serve the White House more than the public.