Senators Will Get to Know When Obama Can Kill Americans—But You Won't

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 3:50 PM EST

Fake drone.

The White House has agreed to more widely share secret Justice Department memos justifying the targeted killing of American citizens suspected of terrorism, Senate intelligence committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced Tuesday.

The documents had become an issue in the Obama administration's push to have counterterrorism official John Brennan confirmed as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. "I am pleased the administration has made this information available," Feinstein said in a statement sent to reporters. "It is important for the committee to do its work and will pave the way for the confirmation of John Brennan to be CIA director." The committee is expected to vote on Brennan's confirmation Tuesday afternoon.

Until last month, the legislators charged with overseeing United States intelligence operations had not been allowed to read the memos. But then, on the eve of John Brennan's confirmation hearing, senators were allowed to see some of the documents—but were not allowed to share them with their staff. 

According to a Senate aide, committee staff (one aide per member) will now also be able to view the memos. That step is welcomed by Raha Wala, an attorney with Human Rights First. "Many congressional staff—including some that are lawyers—have the necessary expertise to evaluate the legal and policy claims being advanced in these memos," he says. "Oversight without their participation would be oversight in name only." Wala also says other committees, such as the Senate and House judiciary committees, should also be allowed access to the memos.

Following Feinstein's announcement, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), and Susan Collins (R-Maine) released a joint statement saying they would now support Brennan's confirmation: "We are pleased that we now have the access that we have long sought and need to conduct the vigilant oversight with which the committee has been charged." Wyden had told the Daily Beast last week that he felt "very strongly that the intelligence committee has to have any and all legal opinions related to targeted killings before there is a committee vote." 

The three senators asked the Obama administration to be even more open: "The appropriate next step should be to bring the American people into this debate." Their statement also praised Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) for insisting that the Obama administration answer questions related to its claimed authority to use lethal force within the United States, and suggested that some answers would soon be made available. "We are particularly pleased that the administration will provide public, unclassified answers to questions about whether these lethal authorities can be used within the United States," the senators said. Paul's office told Mother Jones that they had received a written answer to one of his questions, but did not state whether he would withdraw his threat to filibuster Brennan's nomination.

Human rights advocates expressed satisfaction that the Obama administration has decided to be more forthcoming with its legal authorities regarding targeted killing, but pointed out that the issue the Senate was focused on—terror suspects who are American citizens—was a narrow one.

"As far as we know, these memos likely cover only one targeting decision—the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki—in the hundreds that have occurred during the Bush and Obama administrations," Wala said. "This is an important step forward, but it's woefully inadequate to guarantee robust oversight of the targeted killing program."

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