"In the months ahead, I will continue to engage with 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."
So said President Obama in his State of the Union address last month. Attorney General Eric Holder's testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday would be a great time for this administration to start doing just that.
Members of Congress in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle have asked the Obama administration more than 19 times for access to the Office of Legal Counsel memos that set forth the legal justification for U.S. drone strikes. Yet other than finally agreeing to allow Congressional intelligence committees to view the classified justification for the lethal targeting of one American citizen alleged to be an al Qaeda leader (Anwar al-Awlaki), the Justice Department has refused to share the 11 different legal memos that reportedly address this critical issue: Who is the United States secretly trying to kill and under what legal authority? And what rules constrain the executive in the exercise of this deadly power?
Last week, at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, lawmakers expressed rare bipartisanship on the need for the Obama administration to publicly produce far more information about its secret targeted killing program and the limits of its drone war. All four witnesses agreed with that assessment as well.
The Senate Judiciary Committee should follow up that hearing by insisting that the attorney general, who did not testify to the House committee, answer the following basic questions:
Are you prepared to produce non-classified versions of the all relevant legal memos on the U.S. targeted killing program? If not, why not?
Does the United States believe it is important for other countries developing drone technology to follow clear international laws governing targeted killing? If so, what credibility will the U.S. have in insisting on such compliance if the U.S. refuses to specify what it believes the rules are?
As our allies increasingly express concern and refuse to share intelligence with the United States due to the secretive U.S. drone program, doesn't continuing to conceal these legal memos ultimately undermine U.S. counterterrorism policy?
With bipartisan concern clear and public interest in the program growing, now is the time for the Justice Department to explain fully its legal support for the program, or risk more claims of the Obama administration's hypocrisy for insisting on precisely the sort of transparency on counterterrorism policy from the Bush administration that this administration is now refusing to provide.
For more on the applicable laws and what the Obama administration can do to ensure its targeted killings don't violate them, check out Human Rights First's Blueprint: How to Ensure the U.S. Drone Program Does Not Undermine Human Rights.