President Barack Obama, moving to defuse a battle with Congress, directed the Justice Department on Wednesday to share with key congressional committees secret memos laying out the legal justification for targeted drone-strike assassinations overseas, an aide said.
Obama’s decision came as his pick to head the CIA, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, faced a grilling on the issue Thursday at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Today, as part of the president's ongoing commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters, the president directed the Department of Justice to provide the congressional Intelligence committees access to classified Office of Legal Counsel advice related to the subject" of drone strikes, an administration official said in an emailed statement to reporters. The official requested anonymity to detail behind-the-scenes cooperation between the White House and Congress on a sensitive issue.
Senators, notably Democrat and Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden of Oregon, have been pressing the Obama administration for months to provide the panel with memorandums giving the legal green light for drone strikes targeting Americans thought to consort overseas with terrorists. Brennan was expected to face questions on the issue from the committee in a hearing due to open Thursday at 2:30 p.m. EST.
The issue attracted fresh scrutiny this week when NBC News obtained and published a 16-page “white paper” that lays out a broad rationale for targeting individual Americans anywhere outside the U.S. for assassination—without oversight from Congress or the courts, and even if the U.S. citizen in question is not actively plotting a specific terrorist attack.
The White House on Tuesday defended targeted assassinations as “necessary,” “ethical” and “wise.” Human rights and civil liberties groups have condemned those strikes partly because they are carried out without oversight from American courts or Congress. Other critics have warned that civilian deaths in drone strikes inflame anti-U.S. sentiment and help Islamist extremist groups recruit new members.
In an October 2012 interview, Obama told "The Daily Show" that he hoped to work with Congress “to make sure that not only am I reined in, but any president is reined in” in terms of national security-related powers.