The White House and its critics faced off on Tuesday over the legality of drone strikes to kill US citizens abroad, in a likely preview of arguments that will be raised during this week’s confirmation hearing for US President Barack Obama’s choice to head the CIA.
The disclosure of an unclassified US Department of Justice memo laying out the legal framework for the government’s ability to attack its own citizens drew criticism from civil liberties groups, but the White House strongly defended the controversial policy as legal and ethical.
The unclassified memo, first obtained by NBC News, argues that drone strikes are justified under US law if a targeted US citizen had “recently” been involved in “activities” posing a possible threat and provided that there was no evidence suggesting the individual “renounced or abandoned” such activities.
White House spokesman Jay Carney defended current US drone policy, saying they are used to mitigate threats, stop plots, prevent future attacks and save lives.
“These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise,” he said.
Civil liberties groups expressed concerns, while US lawmakers called on the White House to release more of its legal underpinning for the assertion that the president has the power to kill US citizens abroad without trial.
The Obama administration has dramatically increased its use of drone aircraft abroad in recent years to target al-Qaeda in far-flung places from Pakistan to Yemen.
“My initial reaction is that the paper only underscores the irresponsible extravagance of the government’s central claim,” Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union wrote on the union’s blog. “Even if the Obama administration is convinced of its own fundamental trustworthiness, the power this white paper sets out will be available to every future president.”
The use of drones figures to be a prime topic for White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan when he faces the Senate Intelligence Committee in a confirmation hearing on his nomination to become CIA director.
The document was disclosed as a bipartisan group of US senators called on the Obama administration to release to Congress “any and all” legal opinions laying out the government’s understanding of what legal powers the president has to authorize the killing of US citizens.
The senators who signed the letter, including members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the administration’s cooperation would “help avoid an unnecessary confrontation that could affect the Senate’s consideration of nominees for national security purposes.”
One national security official said the leak of the US Department of Justice memo may have been timed to blunt such congressional demands for the release of additional documents.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat who chairs the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement on Tuesday that she had been calling on the administration to release legal analysis related to the use of drones for more than a year.
Feinstein said the document obtained by NBC had been given to congressional committees in June last year on a confidential basis and that her committee is seeking additional documents, which are believed to remain classified.
US Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday said he was concerned that the release of more documents would put sources and operations at risk.
“We’ll have to look at this and see how, what it is we want to do with these memos,” Holder said.
There is “a real concern to reveal sources, to potentially reveal sources and methods, and put at risk the very mechanisms that we use to try to keep people safe, which is our primary responsibility,” he said at a press conference.