Senate Judiciary panel to see legal justification for killing US citizens

The Obama administration on Wednesday is expected to grant members of the Senate Judiciary Committee access to its legal justification for killing suspected terrorists who are U.S. citizens.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told The Hill that he and other members of the panel will be given access to the detailed Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos, which lay out the administration's legal support for targeting U.S. citizens who are suspected of being terrorists, pose an “imminent threat” to U.S. national security and for whom capture is not an option. 

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On Tuesday Leahy said the administration was planning to come to Capitol Hill and make documents available for committee members to read on Wednesday.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the panel's ranking member, is also planning to be there to see the documents, according to his spokeswoman.

Leahy has fought to gain access to the memos for nearly two months, telling Attorney General Eric Holder that he would consider issuing a subpoena if the administration did not provide his committee with access.

Until now, the administration has only provided the OLC memos to the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which it did ahead of a hearing to consider confirming John Brennan as director of the CIA.

Members of the Judiciary panel had only been given access to a Justice Department white paper that was leaked to NBC News last month.

The white paper states that a lethal strike against a senior operational leader of al Qaeda — or an affiliated terrorist group — can occur if a three-part test is met: a high-ranking American intelligence official must have determined that the person poses an “imminent threat,” the person’s capture is not feasible and a strike on that person is conducted according to the laws of war governing use of force.

A final Senate vote on Brennan's confirmation was delayed last month by senators who asked for more information about the U.S. drone program. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) filibustered the vote until the administration told him that it could not legally kill U.S. citizens on American soil using a drone strike. 

Holder had told the Judiciary panel, during its annual oversight hearing of the Justice Department, that he was sympathetic to showing the committee members the OLC memos, and that he would try to make their case to other officials in charge of deciding whether to share the legal opinion.

In a speech at Northwestern University last March, Holder first laid out the administration’s justification for targeting U.S. citizens abroad, saying that the government’s definition of “imminent threat” consisted of three criteria: there was a limited open window for attacking the person, a grave possible harm that not attacking the target could have on U.S. civilians, and a strong likelihood that targeting the person would head off a future attack against the United States.

Concern over the government’s targeting of U.S. citizens abroad first came to a head in 2011, when it was revealed that U.S. officials targeted and killed American-born Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike. Al-Awlaki was widely known for inciting attacks against the United States, such as the 2009 Fort Hood mass shooting, the thwarted “underwear” bombing of a U.S.-bound plane the same year and the failed Times Square bombing in 2010.

The Judiciary panel's Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights subcommittee on Tuesday announced plans to hold a hearing next week on "Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing." 

—This report was last updated at 5:50 p.m.