House Democrats Demand Answers from Obama about Drone Killings

A model of an unmanned flying vehicle protesting the use of drones is seen on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House in this June 23, 2012 file photo. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

House Democrats Demand Answers from Obama about Drone Killings

'Targeted killing' program sets 'a dangerous precedent'

Key members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have sent a letter to President Obama demanding more transparency and a "full, unclassified release of information" regarding his ongoing and highly controversial drone and targeted assassination programs.

Reminding the executive branch of their congressional oversight authority, the Democratic members of the House -- including CPC co-chairs Reps. Keith Ellison (MI) and Raul Grijalva (AZ), Barbara Lee (CA), John Conyers (MI), Donna Edwards (MD), Mike Honda (CA), Rush Holt (NJ), and Jim McGovern (MA)--say that though they appreciate the recent release of pertinent memorandum to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, more is required.

"Every American has the right to know the underlying legal rationale that ensures due process," the members said in their letter. And continued:

Authorizing the killing of American citizens and others has profound implications for our Constitution, the core values of our Nation, our national security and future international practice. The executive branch's claim of authority to deprive citizens of life, and to do so without explaining the legal bases for doing so, sets a dangerous precedent and is a model of behavior that the United States would not want others to emulate.

Though human rights campaigners and civil libertarians have been demanding accountability since revelations about the Obama's 'kill list' program first surfaced, a recent surge in public and congressional interest in the program followed the president's nomination of his counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA.

Brennan, among other things, is understood to be the chief architect of the Obama drone strategy. Together with the president and a small group of intelligence and administration "officials," this small circle is thought to be the group which puts individuals on "the list" for targeted killing. Despite opposition to his nomination--including a dramatic 13 hour filibuster by Senator Rand Paul to block a full vote--Brennan was confirmed by the Senate last week.

Though the Obama administration did release certain legal documents to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee to win approval for Brennan's passage, other members of Congress--not to mention the public at large--have continued to be left in the dark.

As anti-war activist and historian Tom Hayden writes in The Nation this week:

As Congress considers its options, it is crucial that the public be included in a rightful role. [...] The public has a right to know, obtained through public debate and public elections, the rationale, the costs and the predicted outcomes of any military venture. James Madison, cited by Ramberg, gave the reason centuries ago: "Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things be proper or safe judges, whether a war ought to be commenced, continued or concluded."

Specific to this new push by this small cadre of House Democrats, they request clarification on what they perceive as troubling aspects of what has already been disclosed about the White House's approach, including:

  1. An unbounded geographic scope;
  2. Unidentified 'high-level' officials with authority to approve kill-lists;
  3. A vaguely defined definition of whether a capture is "feasible";
  4. An overly broad definition of the phrase "imminent threat," which re-defines the word in a way that strays significantly from its traditional legal meaning; and
  5. The suggestion that killing American citizens and others would be legitimate "under the Authorization for Use of Military Force and the inherent right to national self-defense."

In addition to a request for existing information, the letter asks the Obama administration to "prepare a report to Congress outlining the architecture" of the drone program going forward.

And as Think Progress' Hayes Brown observes:

Many of the issues at play in the letter branch from the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that first cleared the path for retaliatory strikes against Al Qaeda, and has been used by the Obama administration as the justification for its strikes around the world against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. The broad nature of the AUMF has led to several Congressional Progressive Caucus members co-sponsoring a bill to fully repeal it, a move backed by the New York Times editorial board this weekend. Of those members, at least Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) would be in favor of replacing the AUMF with a narrower authorization, according to his office.

Though only eight members of the House of Representatives signed the letter, it is noted as at least the beginning of pushback from the president's own party that has been largely silent and non-confrontational when it comes to the drone issue specifically and his claims of executive authority more broadly.

As The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald pointed out, as he described the debate which followed Sen. Paul's filibuster, last week:

...most Democratic Senators ran away as fast as possible from having anything to do with the debate: see here for the pitifully hilarious excuses they offered for not supporting the filibuster while claiming to support Paul's general cause. All of those Democratic Senators other than Merkley and Leahy (and Sanders) voted to confirm the torture-advocating, secrecy-loving, drone-embracing Brennan as CIA chief.

Meanwhile, a large bulk of the Democratic and liberal commentariat - led, as usual, by the highly-paid DNC spokesmen called "MSNBC hosts" and echoed, as usual, by various liberal blogs, which still amusingly fancy themselves as edgy and insurgent checks on political power rather than faithful servants to it - degraded all of the weighty issues raised by this episode by processing it through their stunted, trivial prism of partisan loyalty. They thus dutifully devoted themselves to reading from the only script they know: Democrats Good, GOP Bad.

To accomplish that, most avoided full-throated defenses of drones and the power of the president to secretly order US citizens executed without due process or transparency. They prefer to ignore the fact that the politician they most deeply admire is a devoted defender of those policies. After stumbling around for a few days in search of a tactic to convert this episode into an attack on the GOP and distract from Obama's extremism, they collectively settled on personalizing the conflict by focusing on Rand Paul's flaws as a person and a politician and, in particular, mocking his concerns as "paranoia" (that attack was echoed, among others, by the war-cheering Washington Post editorial page).

Though likely not enough by itself to garner compliance from the White House, the full letter written by these eight Democrats in the House can be read here.


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