The Obama administration formally admitted for the first time today that it had killed radical Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, and three other US citizens in anti-terror strikes abroad since 2009.
This came in a letter from Attorney-General Eric Holder to Senator Patrick Leahy, who's been pressing for clarification on drone strike policy.
But Holder said Awlaki senior was the only U.S. citizen killed intentionally.
The letter comes on the eve of a major speech on terror policy by President Barack Obama.
U.S. drone strikes have targeted militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The number of people killed is hard to pin down precisely. But the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism calculates it's somewhere between 3,000 and 4,700. And within that number are a large number of civilian deaths.
Journalist Jeremy Scahill has been tracking the drone program for years. In one section of his new book, Dirty Wars, he describes the drone strike in Yemen that killed Awlaki in 2011.
Awlaki had worked with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and had been linked to several plots against the United States. But Scahill also focuses on another drone attack in Yemen. It involved another member of Anwar al-Awlaki's family, also a U.S. citizen.
"When his oldest son, Abdulrahman turned 16 years old, he ran away from home in Sana'a, and he went to the middle of nowhere, to Shebwa province, where there had been repeated strikes aimed at trying to kill his Dad. And he wanted to find his father," Scahill told The World's Marco Werman. "His father is killed in the north of Yemen, and then the kid gets stuck. The Arab Spring was going on, there was fighting in Yemen, and he couldn't make it back to Sana'a, to his grandparents' house. So he had to wait in this village for two weeks. He's out one night having dinner with his teenage cousins, when a drone appears above them and launches a missile. And blows the kids up."
Holder's letter acknowledges the U.S. killed Abdulrahman, but the death was not intentional.
Scahill says he's devoted much of the past two years trying to understand why the younger Awlaki was killed. "His only connection to alleged terrorism," Scahill says, "was the fact that his last name was Awlaki and his Dad was Anwar al-Awlaki, and the Obama Administration has never provided an explanation as to why that kid was killed. I mean it just seems like an impossible coincidence."
In the interview, Marco Werman asks whether some defenders of the drone program may have a point when they suggest that the deaths of innocents are the cost of a program that may ultimately save lives by not putting troops on the ground, in harm's way.
Scahill says "it's a myth that there aren't U.S. forces on the ground in harm's way when we're using drones. You have to have people on the ground, painting targets, finding out who's who in various networks, and the U.S. does have a clandestine and covert presence on the ground in Yemen. It's part of how Anwar al-Awlaki was discovered on the ground in Yemen."
As for the future of America's drone program, Scahill has serious questions about the legality of targeted killings. "I will say, though" Scahill concludes, "that I think we are looking at the future of how the U.S. is going to wage its wars, and central to it is going to be trying to not have U.S. soldiers en masse in harm's way."