Fearful that the confirmation hearings of John Brennan for CIA director would be derailed before they started, President Obama relented and gave Congress a secret legal memo explaining his justification for drone strikes on Americans suspected of working with terrorists.
The issue is sure to be a central question in the Senate hearings today of Brennan, a longtime CIA official who left the agency to become Obama’s counterterrorism expert and the czar of the drone program. Obama was coming under increasing criticism from members of Congress for not releasing the memo — which the administration had previously claimed didn’t exist.
The president undoubtedly was pressured by the leaking of the memo to NBC News, which released it earlier in the week. The undated 16-page memo is titled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operation Leader of al Qaeda or An Associated Force.” The administration argues that the killing of an American can be ordered even in the absence of an “active plot” to attack the United States.
According to some estimates, the CIA and the U.S. military have undertaken more than 300 drone strikes and killed about 2,500 people — many of them civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates a higher number — that from 2004 to 2013, CIA drone attacks in Pakistan killed up to 3,461 people — up to 891 of them civilians.
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said the memo was “a profoundly disturbing document.”
“It’s hard to believe that it was produced in a democracy built on a system of checks and balances,” he said. “It summarizes in cold legal terms a stunning overreach of executive authority — the claimed power to declare Americans a threat and kill them far from a recognized battlefield and without any judicial involvement.”
Last week, the U.N. announced that it will be conducting an investigation to determine if the controversial program is a violation of international law. At a news conference in London, Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, announced the inquiry, which will look into the impact of the targeted killing program on civilians, as well as the legal underpinnings.
In answers to 40 questions from the Senate in advance of his hearing, Brennan suggested that the killing of civilians in drone strikes is “exceedingly rare, and much, much rarer than many allege.” Brennan once suggested there were no civilian casualties in the drone strikes, but has backed off from that claim.
An administration official who spoke anonymously to the Los Angeles Times described the decision to release the classified Office of Legal Counsel material as “part of the president’s ongoing commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters.”
“I think this is an encouraging first step,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who sits on the Intelligence Committee and was among those who had publicly complained about being denied access to the material. He said Americans must “understand the rules under which a president may make these consequential decisions.”
Wyden said Obama had personally called him and had “assured me that all of the documents concerning the legal opinions on the targeted killing of Americans will immediately be made available.”
While the legality of the drone program has become an obsession of many liberals and members of the media, polls suggest there is wide administration support among the public. A February 2012 Washington Post-ABC poll showed that 83 percent of Americans approved of unmanned drones against suspected terrorists overseas — with 59 percent strongly approving. The support was also remarkably bipartisan — 76 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats approved of the policy.
In that same poll, two-thirds of respondents said they would support the use of drones to target American citizens who are suspected terrorists. The support likely comes from the fact that the program is perceived by the public as a risk-free way to take out the bad guys without the use of American forces.
Brennan also will likely be asked about a report released by the Open Society Foundation earlier this week that stripped the covers off the covert world of torture, abuse and illegal renditions carried out after 9/11 by the United States — with as many as 54 other nations assisting the CIA.
Called “Globalizing Torture,” the report provides the first-ever detailed look at how the Bush administration used a startling web of covert tactics to try to stamp out terrorism with the help of nations that included Austria, Belgium, Canada, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Spain, South Africa, Turkey and Thailand.