John Brennan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster.)
Targeted, extrajudicial killings outside theaters of war—95 percent of which are carried out with armed drones—have become an increasing and disturbing staple of US national security policy over the past decade. George W. Bush ordered fifty non-battlefield targeted killings, more than any other president, and President Obama has already more than septupled that number. Moreover, Obama has expanded the internal legal justification for these strikes to include American citizens as victims, and is reportedly creating an institutional framework for at least another decade of targeted killings.
Despite this dramatic and unprecedented development—which has happened almost entirely in secret, with the administration refusing to even acknowledge the existence of drone strikes until very recently—there hasn’t been one congressional hearing into these killings. Not one.
Already, the looming hearing forced the administration to provide members of the committee with Office of Legal Counsel memos that attempt to justify the legal rationale behind targeted killings, which followed the leak to NBC News of a non-classified Department of Justice white paper on the same topic.
But these revelations have created more questions than answers. Here is a non-exhaustive list of basic questions senators should require Brennan to answer today. To invert the recent parlance about the DoJ memo, this is a floor, not a ceiling—just some basic questions the public deserves answers to.
(1) First of all, why not release the OLC memos to the public? Showing them to a handful of senators is a step in the right direction, but Obama boldly released the infamous Bush torture memos at the start of his administration, and there’s just no compelling argument why these memos are any different. Let the people know how their government is justifying extrajudicial killings—especially since any American can is eligible as a target. Also, do any other memos exist, and will they be released?
(2) Why do “informed, high-level official(s) of the United States” get sole determination over whether the government can kill an American? First of all, what’s the framework for deciding who this is? It doesn’t explicitly mention the president—which advisers have this power? Where is the cut-off? Moreover, why is there no judicial review before the government denies a citizen due process and kills him? This is a truly radical concept.