Former Defense Dept. Lawyer Says U.S. Killed 16-Year-Old Citizen With Drone By Accident

The Pentagon’s former top lawyer said on Wednesday that the death of a 16-year old American in a drone strike in Yemen was effectively an accident, the first time any current or former Obama administration official has made such an admission.

On Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General Eric Holder sent a letter to members of Congress for the first time publicly acknowledging that U.S. drones had killed four American citizens. One of those citizens was Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16 year-old son of radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who on Wednesday the government also for the first time admitted was killed in a U.S. drone strike for his role in al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula and alleged participation in attempted terror attacks on the United States.

Jeh Johson, who served as the Department of Defense’s general counsel during President Obama’s first term, appeared on MSNBC last night to discuss Holder’s letter, speaking with host Rachel Maddow. In Holder’s letter, Abdulrahman and two other U.S. citizens are described as not “specifically targeted” in the strikes that took their lives — suggesting that perhaps they were killed in a so-called “signature strike” that targets behavior. But Johnson said he thought Holder’s letter could have been more explicit:

JOHNSON: I think you could remove the word specifically from that sentence.

MADDOW: Not targeted at all?

JOHNSON: Not targeted.

MADDOW: They are effectively saying it was an accident.

JOHNSON: We are effectively saying that they were not targeted as part of those specific operations.

MADDOW: But killed anyway.

JOHNSON: But they were, obviously, killed.

Maddow wondered whether Johnson believed that U.S. culpability meant the family of those killed deserved recourse. “That is a very good question,” Johnson said, “I think you should put that to the Department of Justice.”


Nassar al-Awlaki, the father of Anwar and grandfather Abdulrahman, is in the midst of a lawsuit against the U.S. government, alleging that the killing of his son and grandson was unconstitutional. After yesterday’s revelation, a federal judge asked that government lawyers within the next week file a memo on how Holder’s acknowledgement affects the lawsuit.

Prior to Johnson’s statement, the assumption was that Abdulrahman and his friends were killed in what is known as a “signature strike” or “profile strike.” Under the practice, groups of men between 16–55 who meet a certain profile are often considered legitimate targets, often with the U.S. having no concrete knowledge of their identities. There are indications that the practice will be sharply curtailed moving forward, however, as it seems that the same standards applied to the targeted killing of American citizens will be applied to suspected terrorists writ large.