WASHINGTON — The White House on Wednesday directed the Justice Department to release to the two congressional intelligence panels classified documents discussing the legal justification killing, by drone strikes and other means, U.S. citizens abroad who are considered terrorists.
The White House announcement appears to refer to a long, detailed 2010 memo from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel justifying the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who joined al-Qaida in Yemen. He was killed in a CIA drone strike in September 2011. Members of Congress have long demanded access to the memo.
The decision to release the legal memos came two days after a bipartisan group of 11 senators joined a growing chorus asking for more information about the legal justification for targeted killings, especially of Americans.
It also came on the eve of today's confirmation hearing for John Brennan, President Barack Obama's choice for CIA director. Brennan was chief architect of the drone program as Obama's counterterrorism adviser, and the Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to closely question him about his role.
Critics accused Obama of hypocrisy for keeping the legal opinions on targeted killing secret, noting that in 2009 he ordered the public release of the classified memos governing CIA interrogations under President George W. Bush. Administration officials replied that the so-called enhanced interrogations had been stopped, while drone strikes continue.
Until Wednesday night, the administration refused to even acknowledge the existence of the documents, which have been reported in the media.
Administration officials said Obama decided to take the action to involve Congress in developing the legal framework.