The big story this afternoon is the formal admission by the Obama Administration, via a letter to Congress from Attorney General Eric Holder, that it has killed four American citizens in drone strikes. That’s an interesting sign of the pressure Obama is under to be more transparent about his targeted killing operations in the fight against al-Qaeda. But the information itself is not surprising: it has long been known that Obama approved the killing of the al-Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, and that other Americans (including al-Awlaki’s teenage son) have been killed inadvertently — although one of the deaths, Jude Kenan Mohammad, had not previously been reported.
Perhaps more significant, however, is something Holder’s letter mentions only briefly in its second-to-last paragraph: the Attorney General writes that Obama has approved a policy document that “institutionalizes the Administration’s exacting standards and processes for reviewing and approving operations to capture or use lethal force against terrorist targets.” This appears to be the “disposition matrix” that Obama officials, led by former counterterrorism adviser (and now CIA director) John Brennan, spent much of last year assembling. Casually referred to as the drone “playbook,” the document reportedly aspired to clear up questions like who should pull the trigger on drone strikes — some are conducted by the Pentagon, some by the CIA — and just what legal authorities and restrictions apply to them. It may codify a reported shift of some drone activity from the CIA to the Defense Department.
So while the deaths of Americans by drone — including the targeting of al-Awlaki — aren’t really news, the implementation of a formal new policy guiding Obama’s targeted killing against suspected al-Qaeda terrorists is a big deal. But the veil of secrecy is not being lifted entirely. Holder writes that the new policy document will remain classified, although “relevant congressional committees” will be briefed on its contents. We may hear more about it, in broad unclassified terms, when President Obama gives a big speech on his counterterrorism policies.