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Is the Release of Secret Drone Memos an Empty Gesture?

The day has come. Sort of--members of two Senate Intelligence Committees now have "access" to classified memos undergirding the legal justification for killing US citizens abroad in the war on al-Qaeda. But is the big reveal merely lip service?

by Brian Anderson
Feb 7 2013, 5:15pm
President Obama consults with John Brennan, Obama's top counterterror adviser, drone "high priest," and pick to run the CIA (via)

If he and the covert, killer-drone program he's been so instrumental in crafting weren't already facing mounting cricism in Congress, John Brennan, Obama's drone "high priest" and pick to head up the Central Intelligence Agency, is maybe now shitting Hellfire. 

When they grill Brennan later today during his approval hearing, two Senate Intelligence Committees will have at their disposal a whole lot more information concerning the targeted killings of US citizens than was available this time yesterday, when the recent leak of a 16-page Department of Justice brief on the rationale behind the drone strikes that took out three US citizens in 2011 was still crushing headlines by offering an initial peek at the letter of American shadow wars. So maybe Obama was just old fashioned feeling the heat; maybe, as the admistration is telling it, it was a move to make good on his word that he'd more actively loop Congress into the national security conversation moving forward into his second term. Whatever it was, the president ordered the release Wedneday evening of classified documents detailing the full legal justification for killing, via drone or otherwise, US citizens abroad who are suspected of associating with known terrorist organizations.   

The release is "extraordinary", administration officials say, and will not be precedent setting. As an unnamed official familiar with both the documents and their reveal told the New York Times, members of the intelligence committees have been given "access" to the memos. The official added that this "access"--first spoke about to the press by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) after receiving a call yesterday from Obama himself, who said that "effective immediately" he'd be making "the legal opinions available and he also hoped that there could be a broader conversation”--was given to the committees as a means to better involve Congress in shaping the legal processes for marking specific individuals for death in the ongoing war on al-Qaida and its affiliates. 

US-born Anwar al-Awlaki, the so-called YouTube cleric, was killed in Yemen in a drone strike in 2011, along with another American citizen. Anwar's 16-year-old son, another US citizen, was killed by a drone two weeks after his father (via)

Which all sounds well and good. In the march of transparency, any peel-back, however incremental, is always supposed to be a good and noble endeavor, right? Or in the case of dead US citizens, is it just lip service?

Yes and no. 

Obama's decision is “a small step in the right direction," Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Times. Indeed, until Wednesday the administration maintained a staunch line in refusing to make even the slightest mention of neither the documents nor the strikes they greenlight--it could neither "confirm nor deny" that the whole bloody thing existed in the first place. So, good on Obama. It may be a bit late, but something is better than nothing, no? 

Then again, take a look at who has "access"--or rather, who doesn't. Anders noted that the papers weren't offered to the Armed Services Committes or the Judiciary Committess. Those two panels, respectively, hold jurisdiction over the Pentagon's dronings on (the US's spy- and kill-drone campaign is, of course, two-ponged, with both the military and the CIA carrying out missions across the Mid East and Horn of Africa) and oversees the Justice Department. Hell, nobody has any idea as to whether the release came in the form of a single memo, or if multiple memos were packaged into the 11-hour "access" afforded the two Senate Intelligence Committees.

The other glaring snub? The general public. Anders said the public deserves, at minimum, a redacted copy of any relevant material. “Everyone has a right to know when the government believes it can kill Americans and others,” Anders said. 

This is a rare moment for drones--the only of it's kind to date--in the international spotlight that could provide both Brennan and his boss the oppourtunity to finally pull off the cover completely, laying bare for criticism the legal architecture behind lethal drone attacks on American citizens. For now, that something--we're still can't be entirely sure what, exactly--was released to a select group of people on the Hill is itself the story. And we've all heard that one, before. 

Reach Brian at @thebanderson