The OLC “Kill” Memo: Is there really anything to be alarmed about?

May 3, 2010</p><p class=

Chief counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan delivers one of several briefings that President Obama received on an attempted Times Square car bombing in May 2010. In the administration's counterterrorism efforts, it is Brennan who shapes recommendations on “kill” lists and the allocation of armed drones, the war’s signature weapon.

Pete Souza / The White House

President Bush had the OLC “torture” memos, because he felt making high value targets uncomfortable to save American lives was important. President Obama has his “kill” memo, because he feels it legally messy to capture and interrogate over simply killing terrorists; and he includes American citizens as possible HVTs who can be targeted for extermination without due process….to make America safe.

In wake of John Brennan’s confirmation hearing today for the position of CIA Director (with questions to answer for, from the left and the right), and amidst pressure from those on the right AND the left, President Obama has agreed to sharing the OLC “kill” memo with congressional intelligence committees.


Senate committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she was “pleased” with the decision. “It is critical for the committee’s oversight function to fully understand the legal basis for all intelligence and counterterrorism operations,” Feinstein said in a statement.

She said the committee expected to receive the document Thursday morning.

The memo, written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, provided the administration’s legal basis for a 2011 CIA drone attack in Yemen that killed U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Obama described Awlaki as the chief of “external operations” for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaeda affiliate held responsible for several unsuccessful attacks on the United States.

The administration had described the memo as an internal “work product” that does not have to be shared with Congress. Lawmakers accused the administration of a lack of transparency and likened its handling of the issue to the refusal of the George W. Bush administration to provide access to legal memos justifying the use of harsh interrogation methods against terrorism suspects. Obama publicly released those memos shortly after taking office in 2009.

Last summer, the Justice Department provided members of the intelligence and Judiciary committees with a summary of the legal opinion on U.S. citizen killings. But key lawmakers said it was not enough.

While specific lethal operations “need to be confidential,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Wednesday, “laws in our country and their interpretation are not supposed to be confidential. . . . The idea of keeping the intelligence committee, in particular, out of even any real insight into the legal analysis, it’s a mockery . . . of the oversight process.”

Wyden, a committee member who spoke to reporters at Senate Democrats’ annual retreat in Annapolis, stopped short of saying he planned to hold up Brennan’s confirmation. But, he said, “you’ll be certain I am going to bring it up” at the hearing and “I am going to pull out all the stops” to obtain the document.

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