US senators have requested the legal justification for the killings of US citizens suspected of terrorism by the Obama administration. Meanwhile a ‘chilling’ leaked memo showed that the government sees little need for constraint on the issue.
A group of 11 senators on Monday wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to release all Justice Department memos on the practice of targeting US citizens suspected of being terrorist leaders with lethal force, particularly drone airstrikes. The request comes as the administration seeks Senate approval for John Brennan, Obama's nomination for CIA chief.
"As the Senate considers a number of nominees for senior national security positions, we ask that you ensure that Congress is provided with the secret legal opinions outlining your authority to authorize the killing of Americans in the course of counterterrorism operations," the letter's opening paragraph reads.
Brennan, who is deputy national security advisor to the president, is to face questioning from the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 7. As the Obama administration carries on many of the Bush-era policies that exist in something of a legal gray area, lawmakers want to be sure they have all the information possible in order to "avoid an unnecessary confrontation that could affect the Senate's consideration of nominees for national security positions."
And in case the White House attempts to block the release of the documents by appealing to some legal "privilege," the legislators continue, "We would encourage you to simply waive whatever privilege might apply, if you would like to make it clear that you are not setting a precedent that applies to other categories of documents."
The legislators are not alone in their desire to see the secret justification for targeted killing of Americans by the US administration. The New York Times and the ACLU have filed a lawsuit seeking access to the Justice Department memos on the issue under the Freedom of Information Act.
Previously a number of US officials, including Brannon, Attorney General Eric Holder and others, have argued in public speeches in favor of drone killings of Americans who pose an imminent threat to the country. But apparently in practice the administration has a broader view on what constitutes the imminence of a threat.
NBC News published on Tuesday a copy of a 16-page memo detailing legal reasoning of the killings, which was provided to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees in June on condition that it would not be discussed publicly.
The white paper argues that the US is operating lawfully in kill “senior operational leaders of Al-Qaeda or an associated force” even if a person happens to be a US citizen and is not known to be planning an attack on America.
“The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.
It is sufficient that an “informed, high-level” official of the US government determines that the target of the killing has been “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities” the document says. It gives no definitions of “recently” or “activities”.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, called the white paper “a chilling document” that “redefines the word imminence in a way that deprives the word of its ordinary meaning.”
“Basically, it argues that the government has the right to carry out the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen. It recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined, and it’s easy to see how they could be manipulated,” he told NBC News.
Obama had attempted to nominate Brennan for the post in 2009, at the start of his first term, but Brennan withdrew his name from consideration after facing claims that he supported former President George W. Bush’s torture program. Brennan was described as a “supporter of the ‘dark side’ policies,” with critics claiming his appointment “would dishearten and alienate those who opposed torture under the Bush administration,” read a letter sent to Obama in 2008.