Obama releases secret drone memo to Senate Intel Committee

Stung by the outcry across the political spectrum from a leaked memo on drone-targeting decisions, Barack Obama has begun to play defense where it counts.  Late last night, the White House agreed to release the memo governing the use of drones to kill American citizens abroad suspected of terrorist activities.   The move is designed to head off tough questioning of John Brennan in his confirmation hearing as he prepares to become the next CIA Director:

President Obama yielded Wednesday to congressional demands that he provide access to a secret legal memo on the targeted killing of American terrorism suspects overseas, avoiding a confrontation that threatened the confirmation of John O. Brennan as his new CIA director.

Obama directed the Justice Department to hand over the document to the Senate Intelligence Committee “as part of the president’s ongoing committment [sic] to consult with Congress on national security matters,” an administration official said.

Senate Democrats and Republicans, including several on the intelligence committee, had threatened to delay, if not derail, Brennan’s confirmation in a Thursday hearing. …

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, the al-Qaeda affiliate held responsible for several unsuccessful attacks on the United States.

The administration had described the memo as an internal “work product” that does not have to be shared with Congress. Lawmakers accused the administration of a lack of transparency and likened its handling of the issue to the refusal of the George W. Bush administration to provide access to legal memos justifying the use of harsh interrogation methods against terrorism suspects.

But …

Obama publicly released those memos shortly after taking office in 2009.

I doubt that more than a few would have argued with the designation of Awlaki as an enemy combatant, but that’s not the concern, nor is Awlaki’s 16-year-old cousin, who was killed by the same strike that got the elder Awlaki.  Nor is the concern, as some have suggested, that we have to ensure that no American citizens are on a battlefield before we launch a military attack, as some have absurdly suggested with references to World War II.  The issue is the deliberate targeting of American citizens for discrete assassinations conducted largely by the CIA, not military operations against known al-Qaeda assets abroad.

There may be certain cases where that is necessary; Awlaki was a good example of an arguably necessary case. But the process for the deliberate targeting of US citizens on the basis of terrorism should have some checks and balances, and the memo released this week has none at all.

The Senate Intelligence Committee will have an opportunity to ask John Brennan about this and more in today’s confirmation hearing.  Brennan will no doubt be much better prepared for tough cross-examination than Chuck Hagel was last week, but he’s not facing as sympathetic a panel as Hagel did, either.  The skepticism over the drone program is now bipartisan, and Brennan is the first key Obama administration official to face Congress over it.  Don’t expect an easy ride this time, not even from the Democrats.

Josh Gerstein lists five questions Brennan will almost certainly have to answer.  The first of them should be a big barometer of Brennan’s support:

1. How does he answer the “torture” concerns?

This issue sank Brennan’s chances of heading up CIA four years ago, when Obama considered naming him but backed away after an outcry from liberal activists seeking a clean break with the war-on-terror tactics used by the Bush administration. Brennan was a top official at the CIA when the go-ahead was given for the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.

Obama appears to have decided that concern about the torture issue has simmered down to the point that it won’t be a major roadblock to getting Brennan to the director’s office at the CIA.

That may have been true … before the release of the drone memo this week.  It may no longer be true, and it might be Obama’s own Democrats who sink Brennan’s appointment.