Before he votes to confirm Obama terrorism czar John Brennan as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has a few rather touchy questions.
Specifically, a letter published by Wired revealed that he asked Brennan about the rules governing the use of drone aircraft to assassinate American citizens overseas — a topic the administration has been rather secretive about.
“Senior intelligence officials have said publicly that they have the authority to knowingly use lethal force against Americans in the course of counterterrorism operations, and have indicated that there are secret legal opinions issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that explain the basis for this authority,” Wyden wrote. “I have asked repeatedly to see these opinions, and I have been provided with some relevant information on the topic, but I have yet to see the opinions themselves.”
The killing of American citizens by drones is not something that’s happened frequently, but it is of great concern to many civil libertarians. So far, only three American citizens are known to have been killed in drone strikes, and two of them were declared enemy combatants: militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son and al Qaeda propagandist Samir Khan.
A lawsuit over the killings filed by al-Awlaki’s family and the American Civil Liberties Union was shot down earlier in January (PDF) by a federal judge in New York, although the judge acknowledged that the targeted killings raise profound constitutional questions.
“This ruling denies the public access to crucial information about the government’s extrajudicial killing of U.S. citizens and also effectively green-lights its practice of making selective and self-serving disclosures,” ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said in an advisory. “As the judge acknowledges, the targeted killing program raises profound questions about the appropriate limits on government power in our constitutional democracy. The public has a right to know more about the circumstances in which the government believes it can lawfully kill people, including U.S. citizens, who are far from any battlefield and have never been charged with a crime.”
The ACLU still has other lawsuits pending before U.S. courts that could force the disclosure of the Obama administration’s legal justification for assassinating American citizens it views as enemy combatants. Meanwhile, Wyden’s plea is the latest effort to get any hint of relevant information out of the administration.
“As I have said before, this situation is unacceptable,” Wyden wrote. “For the executive branch to claim that intelligence agencies have the authority to kill American citizens but refuse to provide Congress with any and all legal opinions that explain the executive branch’s understanding of this authority represents an alarming and indefensible assertion of executive prerogative.”
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