As Congress prepares to consider President Obama's nomination of his top counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to lead the CIA, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday demanded that Brennan release legal documents explaining the basis for the US government's covert and ongoing drone assassination program.
In a letter (pdf) to Brennan—the architect of Obam's "Kill List" program— Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who himself sits on the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence asks, "How much evidence does the President need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed? ... Does the president have to provide individual Americans with the opportunity to surrender before killing them?"
The letter continues: "For the Executive Branch to claim that intelligence agencies have the authority to knowingly kill American citizens, but refuse to provide Congress with any and all legal opinions that explain this authority represents an alarming and indefensible assertion of executive prerogative."
Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic writes that given Wyden's role on the Intelligence Committee,
There is no one in America more justified in demanding to know the official legal rationale behind actions like targeted killings. Obama isn't just keeping this information from the American people. He isn't just hiding his legal reasoning from the U.S. Congress. He is stonewalling one of 15 senators that federal law establishes as the most important check on secret abuses by the CIA.
We're used to such questions from organizations like the ACLU, journalists like Charlie Savage and various concerned citizen. And though rules that confer death should always be transparent, the fact that they're being kept even from Wyden is especially indefensible.
Wyden writes that he repeatedly asked for legal opinions obtained by the Justice Department, but to his "surprise and dismay" did not receive the information. "The fact that this request was denied reflects poorly on the Obama administration's commitment to cooperation with congressional oversight," Wyden said.
"For the Executive Branch to claim that intelligence agencies have the authority to knowingly kill American citizens, but refuse to provide Congress with any and all legal opinions that explain this authority represents an alarming and indefensible assertion of executive prerogative."
The administration has repeatedly refused to explain or justify its assassination program. In a blow to transparency efforts, and following a legal challenge by both the ACLU and the New York Times to release such details, a federal judge last at the beginning of the month ruled that the government is not required to disclose the legal basis for September 2011 missile strikes in Yemen that killed three American citizens.
"What this indicates is the Obama administration and US intelligence agencies could be engaged in any number of 'counterterrorism' operations in any number of countries and they could be assassinating people extrajudicially in those countries," writes Kevin Gosztola at Firedoglake. "The Obama administration and intelligence agencies will not inform Congress on the extent of such operations, even though under law they are supposed to keep Congress informed."
"The administration is fighting to keep the power to act as judge, jury and executioner and kill anyone the president deems to be a terrorist threat without independent judicial review completely concealed," Gostola continues. "They are going to great lengths to prevent information on what domestic and international laws make the program legal by fighting in court and completely ignoring a US senator trying to do his job. This means there is currently no meaningful oversight whatsoever on this program."
The Obama Administration's failure to provide that information alone ought to be a scandal. ... And there's even more stonewalling. Wyden isn't just being denied information about the criteria for the extrajudicial killings of Americans. Team Obama won't even tell him in how many countries the United States is killing people!
Obama has created exactly the sort of secretive, unaccountable environment that led to many of the CIA's most egregious historic abuses. He ought to be held accountable for all abuses that result from his reckless imprudence. And he ought to be judged harshly, because he knows better.