PORTLAND, Ore. – Oregon's Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, along with a group of fellow senators, sent an open letter to President Barack Obama on Monday, asking for the release of legal opinions that reportedly justify the killing of Americans suspected of terrorism.
"It is vitally important, however, for Congress and the American public to have a full understanding of how the executive branch interprets the limits and boundaries of this authority, so that Congress and the public can decide whether this authority has been properly defined, and whether the President's power to deliberately kill American citizens is subject to appropriate limitations and safeguards,” the 11 senators, three of whom were Republicans, wrote.
Three of those senators, including Wyden, sit on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing on Obama's choice for CIA director, John Brennan, Thursday at the U.S. Capitol.
Up to this point, Wyden has been mostly alone among elected officials in calling for the Obama administration's release of the legal opinions that it has kept from Congress.
In February 2012, Wyden wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder demanding to see the legal opinions. He has never received an official response; however, Holder and other administration officials, including Brennan, gave public speeches in which they outlined the administration's reasoning of when the president can order the killing of an American suspected of terrorism.
But Wyden said the speeches weren't enough, and a day after a KATU.com interview on the subject, he sent a similar letter to Brennan, again demanding Congress be given the legal opinions.
That was three weeks ago.
According to the Wyden press release that accompanied Monday's letter to the president, Brennan had not been forthcoming with the requested legal opinions.
The letter from the senators, which was also signed by Oregon's other senator, Democrat Jeff Merkley, appears to be an attempt to ratchet up the pressure on the administration to release the memos ahead of Brennan's confirmation hearing.
The controversy stems from the killings of American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, and Samir Khan. Anwar and Samir were killed in the same September 2011 drone strike in Yemen even though they were never charged with a crime. Anwar's son was killed in a separate drone strike 200 miles away about two weeks later. It was reported that another militant was the target of that attack and a U.S. official said the U.S. government was unaware Anwar’s son was in the area of the strike.
In their letter to Obama, the senators did not explicitly threaten to block Brennan's nomination but implied there could be significant push-back.
"The executive branch's cooperation on this matter will help avoid an unnecessary confrontation that could affect the Senate's consideration of nominees for national security positions," the senators wrote.
Meanwhile, NBC News obtained an undated 16-page U.S. Justice Department memo (or white paper) on Monday that sheds more light on the legal justification for targeting Americans for death who are suspected of terrorism.
The memo notably expands the definition of "imminent threat" and says a killing "does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future."
According to NBC, the memo was provided to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees in June on the condition they would not discuss it publicly. It was not immediately clear Monday night whether Wyden was among those who received it.
Update: A Wyden spokesman later confirmed the senator received the memo in June 2012.
The memo, however, is not an official legal memo and is not one of the classified legal memos the administration has refused to provide to Congress or make public.
Senators signing the letter:
- Ron Wyden, D-Ore. (Select Committee on Intelligence)
- Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
- Mike Lee, R-Utah
- Mark Udall, D-Colo. (Select Committee on Intelligence)
- Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa
- Susan Collins, R-Maine (Select Committee on Intelligence)
- Dick Durbin, D-Ill
- Patrick Leahy, D-Vt
- Tom Udall, D-N.M.
- Mark Begich, D-Alaska
- Al Franken, D-Minn.