Obama to bring US drone programme out from 'legal shadows' of the CIA

President expected to move drone policy to Pentagon in major counter-terrorism speech outlining new legal guidelines

The White House was due to announce a series of measures aimed at moving the controversial US drone killings programme out of the "legal shadows" on Thursday.

In a major counter-terrorism speech billed as marking the end of an unfettered "war" on terror, Barack Obama was expected to reveal that he will move responsibility for future drone operations from the CIA to the Pentagon so they can be more closely monitored by Congress.

A more limited range of strikes in countries such as Yemen are likely to be carried out by the US military working within a new set of legal guidelines agreed by Obama this week, giving greater clarification on how and when officials can target suspected terrorists operating abroad.

Attorney general Eric Holder told congressional leaders in a letter on Wednesday that they would be briefed in private on whether future drone attacks on suspected terrorists passed the new legal threshold.

Both the White House and the CIA declined to comment on details of the policy ahead of the speech but government sources told the Guardian they would add to existing congressional oversight measures in place. Until recently the administration did not even publicly admit the existence of the drone programme.

Human rights campaigners have cautiously welcomed the attempt to bring US drone warfare policy into the open, but called on President Obama to publish the new legal tests that he was due to announce later on Thursday.

Dixon Osburn, a director at Human Rights First, said: "On its own, it is not clear that taking things away from the CIA makes a difference – the special operations command at the Pentagon is also secret – but at least the military are schooled in the rules of war."

"It looks like Obama is trying to return his counter-terrorism strategy to something that operates within the law. We want to know what that legal framework is though."

Earlier, the White House marked this new effort to draw a line under the controversial drone-strike policy by admitting for the first time that four American citizens were among those killed by its covert attacks in Yemen and Pakistan since 2009.

In a letter to congressional leaders sent on Wednesday, attorney general Eric Holder Holder claimed one of the US citizens killed, Anwar al-Awlaki, was chief of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) and had been involved in plots to blow up aircraft over US soil.

However, Holder said three others killed by drones – Samir Khan, Abdul Rahman Anwar al-Awlaki and Jude Kenan – were not "specifically targeted". The second of these victims, Anwar al-Awlaki's son, is said by campaigners to have been 16 when he died in Yemen in 2011.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 240 and 347 people have been killed in total by confirmed US drone strikes in Yemen since 2002, with a further 2,541 to 3,533 killed by CIA drones in Pakistan.

"The president will soon be speaking publicly in greater detail about our counter-terrorism operations and the legal and policy framework," Holder told 22 senior members of Congress in Wednesday's letter.

"This week the president approved a document that institutionalises the administration's exacting standards and processes for reviewing and approving operations to capture or use lethal force against terrorist targets outside the United States and areas of active hostilities."

The attorney general said this document would remain classified, but relevant congressional committees would be briefed on its contents. No further details were given of other killings in the five-page letter.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama would also outline his renewed attempt to shut the Guantánamo Bay detention centre in the speech, and seek to explain why previous efforts had failed.

The White House said Thursday's speech will cover "broad counter-terrorism policy, including military, diplomatic, intelligence, and legal efforts".

"[Obama] will review the state of the threats that we face, particularly as the al-Qaida core has weakened but new dangers have emerged," it added. "He will discuss the policy and legal framework under which we take action against terrorist threats, including the use of drones.

"He will review our detention policy and efforts to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. And he will frame the future of our efforts against al-Qaida, its affiliates and its adherents."


Dan Roberts in Washington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
ACLU takes CIA to court as agency denies existence of drone programme

Despite references by president and defence secretary, CIA has refused FOIA request on grounds it cannot confirm drone use

Paul Harris in New York

19, Sep, 2012 @2:17 PM

Article image
Obama restricts drone killings and foresees end to 'perpetual war'

Increased oversight designed to bring killing programme out of legal shadows as president defends use of strikes in the past

Dan Roberts in Washington

23, May, 2013 @7:44 PM

Article image
Drone wars and state secrecy – how Barack Obama became a hardliner

The US president has been likened by former supporters to 'George Bush on steroids'. Paul Harris reports

Paul Harris

02, Jun, 2012 @7:56 PM

Article image
Obama drone oversight proposal prompts concern over 'kill courts'

Human rights groups wary after president asks Congress to establish special court or board to authorise legal drone action

Dan Roberts in Washington

24, May, 2013 @3:49 PM

Article image
Obama's drone wars and the normalisation of extrajudicial murder | Michael Boyle

Michael Boyle: Executive privilege has seduced the president into a reckless 'kill first, ask questions later' policy that explodes the US constitution

Michael Boyle

11, Jun, 2012 @4:22 PM

Article image
JSoc: Obama's secret assassins | Naomi Wolf

Naomi Wolf: The president has a clandestine network targeting a 'kill list' justified by secret laws. How is that different than a death squad?

Naomi Wolf

03, Feb, 2013 @2:00 PM

Article image
How the Obama administration is making the US media its mouthpiece | Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald: Spoonfed national security scoops based on anonymous official leaks – did we learn nothing from Judith Miller's WMD reporting?

Glenn Greenwald

08, Jun, 2012 @2:57 PM

Article image
John Brennan and John Kiriakou: how to get ahead in the CIA, and how not to | Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman: Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on CIA waterboarding, goes to prison, while Brennan, who approved it, is set to lead the agency

Amy Goodman

07, Feb, 2013 @4:11 PM

Article image
The law of war does not shield the CIA and John Brennan's drone kill list | Morris Davis

Morris Davis: The US prosecuted Omar Khadr in Guantánamo for not being a lawful combatant. Exactly the same applies to the civilian CIA

Morris Davis

08, Feb, 2013 @1:22 PM

Article image
Families of US citizens killed in drone strike file wrongful death lawsuit

Yemen strike against "kill list" member Anwar al-Awlaki also killed his teenage son and an alleged al-Qaida propagandist

Karen McVeigh in New York

18, Jul, 2012 @7:09 PM