WASHINGTON — A Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Wednesday that he, like the public, is being kept in the dark about Justice Department legal advice on when the U.S. may kill American citizens abroad who are suspected terrorists.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon says he's been trying for more than a year to get the legal analysis from the intelligence community without success. He is renewing his request four months after American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and a second American, Samir Khan, were killed by a CIA air strike in Yemen.
Newsweek magazine said two weeks ago that the Obama administration was planning to reveal publicly the legal reasoning behind its decision to kill al-Awlaki. To date, the administration has not done so.
In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Wyden said that in February 2011, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, "indicated that he would have liked to be responsive to my request, but he told me that he did not have the authority to provide formal written opinions of the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel to Congress."
Wyden said the Justice Department provided him with some relevant information in May 2011, but that the department has not fully complied with his original request.
Dennis Blair, then director of national intelligence, told Congress in February 2010 that in carrying out counterterrorism operations, "If we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that."
Wyden wrote Holder that it is indefensible for the executive branch to claim that intelligence agencies have the authority to knowingly kill American citizens — subject to limitations that have never been described publicly — while at the same time refusing to provide Congress its legal opinions on this authority.
The Justice Department was reviewing Wyden's request in preparation for responding.
Wyden long has been critical of the Obama administration secrecy on national security issues. He has objected that the public is not being told about secret executive branch interpretations of law in the realm of counterterrorism.
Last summer, Wyden and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., sought to force the Obama administration to reveal how many people in the U.S. have had their telephone calls and emails monitored by government agents under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments of 2008.
The administration said it was not reasonably possible to identify the number. Wyden and Udall said they were concerned that the government may be monitoring communications of law-abiding citizens with inadequate justification.
Wyden and Udall also unsuccessfully sought to require the administration to disclose what Wyden said were secret interpretations of domestic surveillance law.
The proposal was aimed at provisions in the USA Patriot Act that allow government agents to conduct broad searches for records in national security investigations without court warrants.