Congress Wants to See Obama’s “License to Kill”

By Adam Serwer

Congress is finally standing up to President Barack Obama on targeted killing. Almost a year after three American citizens were killed in US drone strikes, legislators are pushing the administration to explain why it believes it’s legal to kill American terror suspects overseas.

Congress is considering two measures that would compel the Obama administration to show members of Congress what Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) calls Obama’s “license to kill”: internal memos outlining the legal justification for killing Americans overseas without charge or trial. Legislators have been asking administration officials to release the documents for nearly a year, raising the issue multiple times in hearings and letters. But the new proposals, including one from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) first flagged by blogger Marcy Wheeler and another in a separate intelligence bill, aren’t requests—they would mandate disclosure. That shift shows both Republicans and Democrats are growing impatient with the lack of transparency on targeted killings.

After radical American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, alleged American Al Qaeda propagandist Samir Khan, and Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, were killed by drone strikes in Yemen in September and October of last year, Republican and Democratic members of Congress sent letters asking the Obama administration to explain the legal justification for targeted killing of American citizens. “We got a license to kill Americans, and we don’t know the legal basis for the license to kill Americans…because our letters haven’t been answered,” Grassley complained during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week.

The New York Times has confirmed the existence of a secret memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC)—the branch of the government that tells the president whether what he wants to do is legal—outlining the legal basis for the targeted killing program. But the Obama administration has yet to acknowledge that any such memo exists, despite defending the targeted killing policy in speeches and public appearances, and is currently fighting an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that seeks to force the government to reveal the legal justification for targeted killing. Now Congress seems to be moving towards the ACLU’s position.

Cornyn’s amendment would require the Obama administration to provide the Office of Legal Counsel memo justifying the killing program to legislators on several congressional committees. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee voted to shelve Cornyn’s proposal, but that doesn’t mean the effort is dead. Cornyn could propose his amendment again later this year, and there’s also a section of a separate intelligence bill that would compel the administration to share all of the Justice Department’s legal opinions on intelligence matters with the congressional intelligence committees—unless the White House invokes executive privilege.

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