Obama orders access to memo

John Brennan may be pressed by both the left and the right.
John Brennan may be pressed by both the left and the right.

Lawmakers pressed for the rationale for drone strikes on U.S. citizens.

Posted: February 08, 2013

WASHINGTON - President Obama has directed the Justice Department to give Congress' intelligence committees access to classified legal advice providing the government's rationale for drone strikes against American citizens working with al-Qaeda abroad, a senior administration official and Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday.

A drumbeat of demands to see the document has swelled on Capitol Hill as the Senate intelligence committee prepares to hold a confirmation hearing Thursday for John Brennan, who helped manage the drone program, to be CIA director.

Those demands 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.

The senior official said Obama decided to send lawmakers the classified rationale as part of his "commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters." Obama directed the Justice Department to 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.

Legal opinions produced by the legal counsel's office are interpretations of federal law that are binding on all executive-branch agencies.

The administration official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter by name.

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 said Obama was committed to providing more information to Congress, even as he refused to acknowledge whether the drone memo even existed.

"He thinks that it is legitimate to ask questions about how we prosecute the war against al-Qaeda," Carney said. "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."

Eleven senators, including Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, had called on Obama to provide lawmakers "any and all legal opinions" that outline the authority to use legal force against Americans.

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