This month a federal judge defended the Obama administration’s right to keep secret the legal justifications for targeted drone killings. But a cadre of senators is pushing the issue again. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote a letter to John Brennan — nominee for CIA director, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, and central architect of U.S. drone warfare — asking to see the legal opinions and rules behind the targeted killing of U.S. citizens in counterterrorism efforts and demanding a list of countries where America is conducting shadow wars. Wyden wrote:
Senior intelligence officials have said publicly that they have to authority to knowingly use lethal force against Americans in the course of counterterrorism operations, and have indicated that there are secret legal opinions issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and explain the basis of this authority. I have asked repeatedly to see these opinions, and I have been provided some relevant information on the topic, but I have yet to see the opinions themselves.
… Second, as you may be aware, my staff and I have been asking for over a year for the complete list of countries in which the intelligence community has used its lethal counterterrorism authorities. To my surprise and dismay, the intelligence community has declined to provide me with the complete list.
Wyden’s letter highlights the obfuscation surrounding intelligence decisions on assassinations, such that members of the Senate have struggled for more than a year just to learn about the reach of U.S. drone attacks. Wyden stresses in his letter that a “pattern is forming in which the executive branch is evading congressional oversight by simply not responding to congressional requests for information.”
At the beginning of this year, the New York Times lost a legal battle to force the U.S. government to disclose the legal justification for its targeted killings, including the late 2011 killings of U.S. citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman in separate strikes in Yemen. Wyden’s letter does not mention the al-Awlaki killings but his request for legal opinions regarding the targeting of U.S. citizens would presumably encompass the determinations over these controversial assassinations.
According to Glenn Greenwald on Twitter, Wyden’s letter suggests that a number of Democratic senators will actually interrogate Brennan when reviewing his CIA director nomination. Although, to be sure, regardless of his role overseeing Obama’s “disposition matrix” for targeted killing or past support for CIA torture programs, Brennan’s confirmation is a fait accompli.
Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email firstname.lastname@example.org. More Natasha Lennard.