Obama reverses course, approves providing legal advice on drones to Congress
By JENNIFER EPSTEIN and JOSH GERSTEIN
2/6/13 7:29 PM EST
President Obama has reversed course and agreed to provide the congressional intelligence committees with classified Justice Department legal advice authorizing the use of drones to kill U.S. citizens abroad, two administration officials said Wednesday evening.
The sharing of the information, which lawmakers had long sought, comes on the eve of a Senate hearing on John Brennan’s nomination to serve as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Some senators had suggested that his nomination could be blocked if the administration was not more forthcoming.
Obama made the decision Wednesday to provide members of Congress with the Office of Legal Counsel's advice, one official said, following the leak earlier in the week of a Justice Department white paper on the use of drones. The white paper appears to have been derived from the longer legal memo or memos that the administration long resisted sharing with the oversight panels on the Hill.
A leading lawmaker in the drive for access to the memos, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), welcomed Obama's decision but suggested more disclosure was necessary. "This is an encouraging first step," Wyden told the Associated Press. "There is now an opportunity to build on it."
Earlier Wednesday, Wyden said he would "pull out all the stops to get the actual legal analysis, because without it, in effect, the administration is, in effect, practicing secret law." He also accused the White House of stonewalling.
On Monday, Wyden and ten other senators sent Obama letter demanding access to the legal opinions. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) also called for Congress to see the documents.
"I passionately disagree with them not providing the actual legal opinion," Rogers told MSNBC Wednesday, prior to Obama's new move.
Feinstein said she was "pleased" with the president's action. "It is critical for the committee's oversight function to fully understand the legal basis for all intelligence and counterterrorism operations," she said. She indicated her panel expected to have access to the confidential advice by Thursday morning, ahead of the afternoon hearing scheduled with Brennan.
However, some outsside advocates said showing the memos to Congress was insufficient. .
"Everyone – not just select members of Congress – has a right to know when the government believes it can kill American citizens," the American Civil Liberties Union's Chris Anders said in a statement. "This concession has taken far too long and falls far short of President Obama's commitment to transparency he pledged to abide by since becoming president.”
The administration characterized Obama's decision Wednesday as consistent with his stated desire for Congress to be involved in refining the legal framework surrounding counterterror efforts, and press secretary Jay Carney said in a briefing this week that Obama thinks "it is legitimate to ask questions about how we prosecute the war against Al Qaida."
In an interview last year on "The Daily Show," Obama said: "One of the things that we've got to do is put a legal architecture in place and we need congressional help to do that to make sure that not only am I reined in, but any president is reined in, in terms of some of the decisions that we're making."
Obama made a similar comment in a May 2009 speech, but critics said the administration never did much to enlist Congress's help in crafting war-on-terror legislation, except for a measure to reform military commissions.