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Hey Congress: Make the Sun Shine on the Targeted Killing Memos For All to See

Matthew Harwood,
Former Managing Editor,
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March 4, 2013

During his State of the Union Address a few weeks back, President Obama promised:

[I]n the months ahead, I will continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

Well, we’re still waiting for the president to open the windows and let the sun shine on the targeted killing memos for all to see.

That wait, however, doesn’t have to be for long if Congress says enough is enough. This week, both houses of the United States Congress can hold President Obama to his promise of coming clean on his vast killing program. The program—which is run out of the White House by his senior counterterrorism advisor and current pick to run the CIA, John Brennan—operates almost entirely in the dark, even if the carnage it causes is an open secret to the world. Since taking office, President Obama has significantly conducted more drone strikes than his predecessor, President George W. Bush. According to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the program is responsible for 4,700 deaths, an estimate in line with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Four of the dead have been American citizens.

So mark your calendars this week: it could be the one where Americans and the world finally learn under what conditions the White House can extrajudicially kill someone without due process.

  • On Tuesday, the Senate Intelligence Committee will try once again to vote on Brennan’s nomination. Spurred on by the disclosure of a DOJ white paper, which summarized the legal rationale behind the president’s claimed authority to lethally target an American citizen believed to be affiliated with a terrorist organization far away from any recognized battlefield, a bipartisan group of committee members has been pushing for the White House to disclose all 11 Office of Legal Counsel memos justifying the killing program. The committee members’ efforts, and media attention it has garnered, has so far stalled Brennan’s nomination. If Brennan makes it out of committee Tuesday, this will lead to a showdown in the full Senate, where there are many more senators who want answers before voting on the Brennan nomination.
  • On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for an oversight hearing on the Department of Justice. The committee members will have an opportunity to press Holder on the extrajudicial killing program and why he will not allow Congress and the American people to know when the government believes it can kill people far away from any battlefield. On what authority the White House claims it can engage in extrajudicial killing is also something the international community wants disclosed as well, considering that the overwhelmingly majority of those dead are not U.S. citizens and that the availability of lethal drones won’t stay an American monopoly for long.
  • And maybe later in the week, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., with bipartisan support, may subpoena the OLC memos. He has already said publicly that there’s bipartisan interest in that option. The subpoena possibility comes after Goodlatte and five other bipartisan committee members have repeatedly requested the memos authorizing targeted killing and signature strikes. In the latest letter from February, the six signatories made their displeasure known:

    We are disappointed that three prior requests to review these memoranda by members of the Committee have gone unanswered. We hope that you will affirm your commitment to transparency and openness by accommodating our request to review these documents. We respectfully request that you direct the Justice Department to provide the requested documents to the Committee by close of business on Tuesday, February 12, 2013.

    That letter went unanswered.

Your members of Congress have a duty to ensure that sunlight begins to permeate the White House and illuminate the administration’s secret rules for its killing program. Or as President Obama put it himself, “no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way.” Starting tomorrow, Congress should let the president know that when he makes a promise, the legislature will keep him to it.

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