President Barack Obama has ordered the Justice Department to show lawmakers its classified legal justification for drone strikes against U.S. citizens abroad who are found to be terrorists.
Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees will be given access to the documents from the department’s Office of Legal Counsel, White House press secretary Jay Carney said. The move was made days after a Justice Department outline of circumstances in which American citizens could be targeted became public.
The Obama administration’s policy on strikes by unmanned aircraft, pursued with little oversight by Congress or the judiciary, has angered lawmakers who have pressed for its legal justification. Questions about the policy have emerged as a potential obstacle to Senate confirmation of John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser and an architect of the drone policy, as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Carney said today that there has been “heightened interest” in the admnistration’s rationale and that Obama “wants Congress to be part of our efforts to build a durable, legal framework for our counterterrorism efforts.”
During a hearing today on his nomination before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the 57-year-old Brennan will confront questions on the use of the remotely piloted planes.
Lawmakers and human-rights lawyers say the outline, a 16- page unclassified Justice Department white paper obtained by NBC News, doesn’t provide the transparency Obama promised when he pledged in May 2009 that whenever his administration couldn’t release information for national-security reasons, he would “insist that there is oversight of my actions -- by Congress or by the courts.”
Members of the intelligence panels will be granted access to guidance from the Office of Legal Counsel as it related to the Justice Department white paper.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairman of the intelligence committee, said the panel would receive the classified documents today.
“I am pleased that the president has agreed to provide the Intelligence Committee with access to the OLC opinion regarding the use of lethal force in counterterrorism operations,” Feinstein said in a statement. “It is critical for the committee’s oversight function to fully understand the legal basis for all intelligence and counterterrorism operations.”
The document obtained by NBC News detailed circumstances under which the U.S. is said to be justified in ordering the killing of an American citizen in al-Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist group. The white paper was prepared for members of Congress, Carney said.
“In defined circumstances, a targeted killing of a U.S. citizen who has joined al-Qaeda or its associated forces would be lawful under U.S. and international law,” the memo says. Those circumstances include killing a U.S. citizen who is also an al-Qaeda leader actively engaged in “planning operations to kill Americans.”
Such killings are legal, the document said, if an “informed, high-level official of the U.S. government” determines the citizen poses an imminent threat of violent attack, if capture is “infeasible,” and if the operation can be carried out “in a manner consistent with applicable law-of- war principles.”
In 2011, a drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American who was a leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
During the past four years, the Obama administration conducted six times as many drone strikes in Pakistan, the country where the CIA has done most of its targeted killings, as President George W. Bush’s administration did in the previous four years, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The nonprofit organization tracks drone strikes and civilian casualties.
Senators led by Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, have pressed the administration to explain its basis for using lethal force against Americans abroad and renewed their request in a letter on Feb. 4. The senators implied that foot-dragging might hurt Brennan’s confirmation.
“The executive branch’s cooperation on this matter will help avoid an unnecessary confrontation that could affect the Senate’s consideration of nominees for national security positions,” they wrote.
Carney has defended the policy on targeted killings abroad, including of Americans, as “legal,” “ethical” and “wise.” He said the counterterrorism efforts are designed to limit civilian casualties.
Amnesty International, the human-rights advocacy organization, said that releasing additional information to members of Congress doesn’t do enough to answer questions about the drone program’s legality and called on lawmakers to hold hearings with independent specialists who can review the administration’s rationale.
“Transparency is not the end goal,” Zeke Johnson, director of the organization’s security with human rights campaign, said in a statement. “Ending killing lists is. The president must ensure that the government’s use of lethal force fully complies with international law.”