WASHINGTON — The Obama administration and leading members of Congress have not divulged details or commented on the accidental death of a 16-year-old Coloradan who was among the four Americans living abroad killed by drone strikes.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged the death of Denver-born Abdulrahman al-Awlawki in a letter to Congress Wednesday. Holder wrote that al-Awlawki and two other individuals “were not specifically targeted by the United States,” but did not elaborate on the circumstances of his death in Yemen in October 2011.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) the chairwoman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, pleaded ignorance about al-Awlaki’s death, but defended the Central Intelligence Agency’s handling of incidents like his.
“I don’t know the particulars of the case.I know that the CIA uses the greatest possible care to prevent collateral damage. In the previous year, I know that (the figure) was in the single digits,” Feinstein said in an interview Thursday at the Capitol.
President Barack Obama did not mention or refer directly to Abdulrahman al-Awlaki during his speech at the National Defense University Thursday. A White House spokeswoman referred to the president’s address and Holder’s letter.
The case has been a poorly kept secret in Washington for years, as federal officials have spoken to reporters on the condition they be granted anonymity to discuss the matter.
Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was born in Denver in August 1995 and moved with his family to the Middle Eastern nation in 2002, according to a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed in the U.S. district court in the District of Columbia last July.
He was a son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a suspected al-Qaeda militant who earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University in 1994. The younger al-Awlaki told relatives he was searching for his father in rugged southern Yemen. While he and six others sat down at an outdoor restaurant on the evening of October 14, 2011, a CIA-directed hellfire missiles killed all seven of them.
The killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlawi has been a cause celebre among family members activists. A Facebook page has pictures of the bespectacled, curly haired teenager laughing and making a coy face with one eye shut. “No one in the federal government has provided evidence or an explanation,” the website says.
Obama defended the use of drone strikes on American citizens living in foreign countries.
“(W)hen a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team,” Obama said Thursday.
Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) praised most parts of the speech.
“In acknowledging the U.S. citizens targeted in these operations and in outlining standards for lethal action, he has shown responsiveness to concerns about a lack of transparency in the ‘war on terror. While this is helpful and important, more needs to be done,” Udall said in a statement.
Yet Obama said Congress has played a central role in the use of drone attacks outside of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Not only did Congress authorize the use of force, it is briefed on every strike that America takes. Every strike,” Obama said.
Udall, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, declined to speak on the record about Abdulrahman’s case. His office did not return two voice mails.
The other Americans living abroad that were killed by drone attack were Samir Khan and Jude Kenan Mohammed.
The ACLU’s lawsuit is al-Aulaqi v. Panetta. Among the defendants are former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former CIA Director David Petraeus.
Oral argument in the U.S. States district court in the District of Columbia is set for July 19, ACLU media relations liaison Briana Ryan said.