President Barack Obama has told the Justice Department to show Congress' intelligence committees a classified memo providing the rationale for drone strikes against American citizens, a senior administration official said Wednesday evening.
Both CNN and the Associated Press reported the decision.
Demands to see the document have swelled on Capitol Hill in recent days as the Senate Intelligence Committee prepares to hold a confirmation hearing on Thursday for John Brennan, who helped manage the agency's drone program, to be CIA director.
"Today, as part of the president's ongoing commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters, the president directed the Department of Justice to provide the congressional Intelligence committees access to classified Office of Legal Counsel advice related to the subject of the Department of Justice White Paper," an administration official said in a statement reported by CNN.
The 16-page white paper -- titled "Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qaida or an Associated Force" -- is a policy paper rather than an official legal document.
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The demands for disclosure were only intensified by the leak this week of an unclassified "white paper" on how decisions are made to target U.S. citizens abroad that the Justice Department confidentially sent to key lawmakers last year. The unclassified memo says it is legal for the government to kill U.S. citizens abroad if it believes they are senior al Qaeda leaders continually engaged in operations aimed at killing Americans, even if there is no evidence of a specific imminent attack.
Obama directed the Justice Department provide the Senate and House intelligence committees access to classified advice from its Office of Legal Counsel that the white paper is based on, the official said.
Senate Democrats and Republicans, including several on the Intelligence Committee, had threatened a “confrontation” during the Brennan hearing if the administration does not yield.
Release of the documents to selected lawmakers will “assist in the confirmation of John Brennan,” a committee aide told the Washington Post on Wednesday. The panel, the aide said, “has the right to receive the complete legal analysis on this important subject.”
The memos, written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, provided the administration’s legal basis for a 2011 CIA drone attack in Yemen that killed U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Obama described Awlaki as the chief of “external operations” for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is held responsible for several unsuccessful attacks on the United States.
The administration has described the memo as an internal “work product” that does not have to be shared with Congress. Lawmakers have accused the administration of a lack of transparency and likened its handling of the issue to the refusal of the Bush administration to provide access to legal memos justifying torture of terrorism suspects. Obama publicly released those memos shortly after taking office in 2009.
Last summer, the Justice Department provided members of the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees with a summary of the legal opinion on U.S. citizen killings. But key lawmakers have said it was not enough.
While specific lethal operations “need to be confidential,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told the Post Wednesday, “laws in our country and their interpretation are not supposed to be confidential. . . . The idea of keeping the Intelligence Committee, in particular, out of even any real insight into the legal analysis, it’s a mockery . . . of the oversight process.”
Wyden, a committee member who spoke to reporters at Senate Democrats’ annual retreat in Annapolis, Md., stopped short of saying he planned to hold up Brennan’s confirmation. But, he said, “you’ll be certain I am going to bring it up” at the hearing and that “I am going to pull out all the stops” to obtain the document.
In written answers to the Senate Intelligence Committee released by the panel Wednesday in advance of the hearing, Brennan said release of the memos “would not be my decision.”