President Barack Obama directed the Justice Department Wednesday to give the Senate Intelligence Committee access to a classified document containing the government’s rationale for drone strikes against the American citizens working with the Al-Qaeda abroad.
The U.S. government’s drone program is expected to be put under close scrutiny at a time when the White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan faces the committee Thursday, in a confirmation hearing on his nomination to become the CIA director.
Brennan is considered to be behind Obama administration’s strategy to step up the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for targeted killings against terror suspects.
The hearing comes at a time when legality of the U.S. drone program has attracted unprecedented attention within the country.
NBC News leaked the Justice Department's white paper Tuesday, which legally justified the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen associated with the Al-Qaeda, in Yemen in September 2011 in a drone strike.
The following day, the New York Times revealed that the U.S. has been operating a drone base in Saudi Arabia and that the base was crucial in killing Awlaki.
Obama decided to send lawmakers the classified document as part of his "commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters," the Associated Press reported citing a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"I am pleased that the President has agreed to provide the Intelligence Committee with access to the OLC (Office of Legal Counsel) opinion regarding the use of lethal force in counterterrorism operations," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said in a statement Wednesday.
"It is critical for the committee's oversight function to fully understand the legal basis for all intelligence and counter terrorism operations,” she said.
Earlier Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was engaged in an internal process deliberation to determine how to balance the nation's security needs with its values.
"He thinks that it is legitimate to ask questions about how we prosecute the war against Al-Qaeda," Carney was quoted as saying by the AP. "These are questions that will be with us long after he is President and long after the people who are in the seats that they're in now have left the scene," he said.
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-Qaeda or an Associated Force,” is a policy paper rather than an official legal document, according to a CNN report.
In May, Brennan defended the U.S. drone policy, which has long been questioned for its legality, saying individuals who are part of the Al-Qaeda or its associated forces are legitimate military targets.
“We have the authority to target them with lethal force just as we targeted enemy leaders in past conflicts, such as German and Japanese commanders during World War II,” he had said.
On Wednesday, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers (R-MI8), said the attack that killed Awlaki was justified.
"This is somebody who had said that he didn't want his U.S. citizenship anymore," Rogers told MSNBC.
He added that Awlaki had formally joined Al-Qaeda, a militant group which had declared war on the U.S.
"The legal basis of this goes back many, many years when the U.S. citizens would go and fight for foreign nations that were engaging in combat with the United States," Rogers said.
"So what they were saying is, once you've made that choice, you no longer get the protections that you would. I mean, if you join the enemy overseas, you join the enemy overseas. And we're going to fight the enemy overseas,” he said.