Lawmakers have been demanding to see the Obama administration’s justification for the use of armed drones on Americans suspected of terrorism for more than a year, but the administration wouldn’t even acknowledge that the documents exist until last night, when President Obama finally directed the Justice Department to make them available to the Congressional Intelligence Committees. An administration official explained that this is just “part of the president’s ongoing commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters.” It certainly had nothing to do with members of Congress threatening to hold up the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA chief.
The controversy escalated this week after a white paper outlining the administration’s legal rationale for targeting Americans in drone attacks was leaked by NBC News. On Thursday morning, the committees will receive a longer and more detailed memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that justifies the killing of New Mexico–born Al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, just in time to grill Brennan about it.
Along with the predictable skepticism from the right, Obama’s nominee is set to face hard questions from the left when it comes to the drone program. “We’re expecting to get our questions answered,” said a spokesperson for Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado who has “not decided where he is on the Brennan nomination.” This week, Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee, joined the calls for Obama to release the legal justification for the targeted killings.
Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee and had threatened a possible filibuster, told the New York Times that President Obama finally called him on Wednesday evening and said that “effective immediately he was going to make the legal opinions available and he also hoped that there could be a broader conversation.” Though not too broad. As Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, noted, the document won’t be shared with the Armed Services Committees or the Judiciary Committees, which also oversee agencies involved in the drone program. Anders said the public should be able to see at least some parts of the memo as well, since “everyone has a right to know when the government believes it can kill Americans and others.”
Coming out, somewhat surprisingly, in support of Brennan is the head of the United Nations inquiry into the U.S. drone program, Ben Emmerson, Wired reports. “By putting Brennan in direct control of the CIA’s policy [of targeted killings], the president has placed this mediating legal presence in direct control of the positions that the CIA will adopt and advance, so as to bring the CIA much more closely under direct presidential and democratic control,” he said, giving his “qualified” support.
Despite Obama’s attempt to temporarily defuse one of the most contentious issues raised by Brennan’s nomination, Congress has plenty to grill him about. “The self-described ‘most transparent administration in history’ owes more of an explanation to the American people on why they can be targeted for execution abroad than legal fluff packaged for and deliberately leaked to the media,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas. Cornyn has also expressed hesitation to support Brennan because of “the slew of high-level security leaks that have characterized this White House.” Brennan was interviewed in connection with two national security leak investigations, involving cyber attacks in Iran and Al Qaeda in Yemen.
Then there’s his role in the Bush administration’s use of harsh interrogation techniques (and don’t forget Benghazi). “I think there is going to be lots of questions about, you know, leaks and detention and all the other things, as I talk to my friends in the Senate,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, who predicted that “at the end of the day, he gets confirmed.” It just won’t be easy.
This post has been updated throughout.