House launches bipartisan push for DOJ drone papers

In a letter sent to President Obama, top House committee and subcommittee leaders demanded Department of Justice (DOJ) officials allow House lawmakers to review the legal rulings that allow drone strikes against terror suspects, including those who may be American citizens. 

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"Congress is perfectly equipped to confidentially handle sensitive information, and we are willing to discuss whatever safeguards you believe necessary to protect the information," according to House members. 

Along with committee Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Ranking Member Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), top subcommittee members Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), all signed the letter sent to the White House on Friday. 

The House panel's demand for more information on the administration's drone strike policy comes a day after Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) demanded the release of the DOJ rulings. 

"Taking the life of an American citizen is a tremendous power and one that should not go unchecked," Grassley said on Thursday. "It is our constitutional duty to conduct oversight of this power and reviewing these memos is a required part of that process."

The Obama White House on Wednesday reluctantly agreed to release the DOJ decisions to the Senate Intelligence Committee, after a previously confidential DOJ white paper discussing the drone policy was publicly leaked to the press on Monday. 

The administration's decision was intended to appease members of the Senate intelligence panel, who had threatened to stonewall White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan's nomination to head up CIA. 

Senate intelligence panel member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) indicated he would filibuster the Brennan nomination unless the White House agreed to release the classified DOJ documents. 

The memos were released to the intelligence committee Thursday, the same day Brennan went before the panel for his confirmation hearing. The counterterrorism chief is scheduled to go before the Senate panel again during a closed session set for Tuesday, to discuss classified intelligence matters. 

However, House and Senate Judiciary Committee members argue their congressional oversight responsibilities require they have access to the DOJ materials as well. 

"The House Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction in this area is clear, and we believe that it is important that the legal justification for your targeted killings policy be analyzed by the committee with the most familiarity in this area," Rep. Goodlatte and others wrote in Friday's letter. 

Grassley echoed that sentiment on Thursday, saying his committee's jurisdiction also requires access to review the DOJ documents on drone strike policies. 

"This committee has jurisdiction over the Constitution, and as a result we should have access to these memos as well," the Iowa Republican said. 

The DOJ white paper, first reported by NBC News on Monday, outlined the criteria U.S. military or intelligence officials must follow before they can launch a targeted drone strike against terror suspects — even if those suspects happen to be American citizens. 

If a suspect can be proven to pose an imminent threat to U.S. national security, and it is not feasible to capture the individual, a drone strike becomes an option, Justice Department officials wrote.

The drone strikes have played a key role in the Obama administration's increasingly aggressive counterterrorism campaign against al Qaeda. U.S. national security officials claim the strikes have decimated the terror group's top leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

But top civil rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, claim the counterterrorism tactic denies suspects, particularly U.S. citizens, their rights to due process in favor of national security objectives. 

During Thursday's confirmation hearing, Brennan defended the use of armed drone strikes against suspected terrorists, saying the controversial counterterrorism tactic was the safest way to take out threats to U.S. national security posed by al Qaeda and others. 

The strikes, he added, are executed with "extraordinary care" and comply with U.S. and international law, even if the strikes are targeted at U.S. citizens. 

But surprisingly, Brennan admitted during the hearing that if an individual -- American or otherwise -- is mistakenly tagged as a terror suspect and killed during a drone strike, the United States should publicly acknowledge the mistake and the attack itself. 

"As far as I am concerned ... the U.S. should [publicly] acknowledge it," he told the Senate panel. 

Public admission of a mistaken drone strike, or the strike itself, would represent a break from the classified status of the entire U.S. armed drone strike program.