Obama agrees to release legal memos on Awlaki drone strike

The Senate confirmation process for White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan as CIA director has been clouded by lawmakers' complaints about not receiving documents related to a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — President Obama, who has championed lethal drone strikes as a major part of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, bowed to pressure Wednesday and agreed to allow the Senate and House intelligence committees to review classified legal memos used to justify a drone strike against a U.S. citizen in Yemen in 2011.

Senators had demanded for months to see the Justice Department opinions that provided the White House legal authority to order the targeted killing of Anwar Awlaki, a New Mexico native who became an Al Qaeda leader.


Complaints by several Democrats over not receiving the documents had cast a shadow on the Senate confirmation hearing Thursday of John Brennan, the White House counter-terrorism advisor tapped to be CIA director.

An administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified material, described the decision to release the classified Office of Legal Counsel material as “part of the president’s ongoing commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters.”

“I think this is an encouraging first step,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who sits on the Intelligence Committee and was among those who had publicly complained about being denied access to the material. He said Americans must “understand the rules under which a president may make these consequential decisions.”

Wyden said Obama had “assured me that all of the documents concerning the legal opinions on the targeted killing of Americans will immediately be made available” to the intelligence committees.

Brennan is likely to face questions about the drone strikes that he oversaw in the last four years.

In written answers to 40 pre-hearing questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan said civilian casualties from CIA drone strikes had been “exceedingly rare,” repeating language he used last April after published reports alleged numerous civilian casualties in Pakistan and Yemen.

Former U.S. officials say that, for a time, the intelligence community considered every military-age male killed in a CIA drone strike to have been a militant.

Brennan declined to explain how U.S. authorities conclude that a militant is “associated” with Al Qaeda or whether the threat he poses is sufficiently “imminent” to warrant being targeted for a missile strike.

Brennan said, without elaborating, that those determinations are made on a “case-by-case basis” by intelligence professionals.

Senators are expected to press for more detailed answers at Brennan’s confirmation hearing, but they may be stymied because the use of CIA drones for targeted killing is highly classified, even though it is widely discussed and debated.

Brennan’s confirmation hearing comes amid new scrutiny of the expanded use of drones by both the CIA and the military under the Obama White House.

As keeper of the so-called kill list of targets, Brennan has coordinated both the Pentagon and CIA efforts from the White House, running high-level meetings about potential lethal strikes.

Brennan also told the committee that he had been interviewed in connection with an investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland of possible unauthorized disclosures of information to reporters about cyber attacks against Iran, an apparent reference to stories that described U.S. cyber espionage against Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

Brennan said he also was interviewed by the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington about disclosures to reporters about a foiled bomb plot tied to the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an apparent reference to articles on an agent who infiltrated Yemen’s Al Qaeda branch and tipped off Western intelligence agencies.

“My counsel has been advised by representatives of the United States attorney’s offices that I am only a witness in both investigations,” he said.