WASHINGTON -- The White House on Wednesday directed the Justice Department to release to the two congressional intelligence committees classified documents discussing the legal justification for the use of drones in targeting U.S. citizens abroad who are considered terrorists.
The White House announcement appears to refer to a long, detailed 2010 memo from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel justifying the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who had joined al-Qaida in Yemen. He was killed in a CIA drone strike in September 2011. Members of Congress have long demanded access to the memorandum.
The decision to release the legal memos to the intelligence committees came under pressure, two days after a bipartisan group of 11 senators joined a growing chorus asking for more information about the legal justification for targeted killings, especially of Americans. The announcement also came on the eve of the confirmation hearing scheduled today for John Brennan, President Barack Obama's choice to be director of the CIA, who has been the chief architect of the drone program as Mr. Obama's counterterrorism adviser.
Until Wednesday night, the administration had refused even to officially acknowledge the existence of the documents, which have been reported about in the media. This week, NBC News obtained an unclassified, shorter legal memo, described as a "white paper," that officials said described the legal framework that officials follow in using the drones.
Administration officials said Mr. Obama had decided to take the action -- which they described as extraordinary -- out of a desire to involve Congress in development of the legal framework for the use of drones. Aides noted that Mr. Obama had made a pledge to do that during an appearance on "The Daily Show" last year.
"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 the Department of Justice white paper," said an administration official, who requested anonymity to discuss the handling of classified material. The official said intelligence committees members would now get "access" to the documents.
Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, called the president's move "a small step in the right direction." But he noted that the legal memo or memos were not being shared with either of the armed services committees, which have jurisdiction over Pentagon strikes, or the judiciary committees, which oversee the Justice Department.
The public should be permitted to see at least a redacted version of the relevant memos, Mr. Anders said. "Everyone has a right to know when the government believes it can kill Americans and others," he said.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to closely question Mr. Brennan about his role in the drone program. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who sits on the committee, said in a phone interview that he had been working in his office on questions for Mr. Brennan about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, when Mr. Obama called him and said, "effective immediately, he was going to make the legal opinions available, and he also hoped that there could be a broader conversation."
Mr. Wyden has repeatedly called upon the administration to release its legal memorandums laying out the scope and limits of what the executive branch believes it has the power to do in national security matters, including the targeted killing of a citizen. Earlier Wednesday, at a Democratic retreat in Annapolis, Md., he had vowed to "pull out all the stops to get the actual legal analysis, because without it, in effect, the administration is, in effect, practicing secret law," hinting at a potential filibuster of Mr. Brennan.
Mr. Wyden said committee members would have immediate access to the documents, and that there would be a process for other senators to read them eventually as well. It was not clear whether lawmakers' legal aides would also be allowed to read them.
He said the administration's decision to allow lawmakers "to finally see the legal opinions" was an "encouraging first step, and what I want to see is a bipartisan effort to build on it, particularly right now, when the lines are blurring between intelligence agencies and the military."
The congressional intelligence committees were created in the late 1970s to exercise oversight after a series of scandals at the spy agencies. The law requires that the committees be kept informed of intelligence activities. But most administrations withhold at least some legal opinions, treating them as confidential legal advice to the president and agency officials.