The Obama administration will soon explain why it believes the president has the authority to kill American-born terror suspects abroad without charge or trial, Newsweek‘s Daniel Klaidman reported Monday. US drones have already killed American-born Al Qaeda propagandists Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, and, in a separate strike, Awlaki’s 16-year-old, American-born son Abdulrahman. In October, the New York Times‘ Charlie Savage reported on the contents of a secret document prepared by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that laid out the adminstration’s legal rationale for killing the elder Awlaki. But the Obama administration has yet to publicly explain its controversial argument, and Savage and the Times have sued the government after trying and failing to obtain the OLC memo through the Freedom of Information Act. Now, Klaidman says, the White House seems poised to explain at least some of its reasoning:
In the coming weeks, according to four participants in the debate, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. is planning to make a major address on the administration’s national-security record. Embedded in the speech will be a carefully worded but firm defense of its right to target U.S. citizens. Holder’s remarks will draw heavily on a secret Justice Department legal opinion that provided the justification for the Awlaki killing.
But when you read further down in the Klaidman piece, it’s clear that the government isn’t preparing to say much:
An early draft of Holder’s speech identified Awlaki by name, but in a concession to concerns from the intelligence community, all references to the al Qaeda leader were removed. As currently written, the speech makes no overt mention of the Awlaki operation, and reveals none of the intelligence the administration relied on in carrying out his killing.
It’s hard to see how this will make anyone on either side of the Awlaki debate happy. Secrecy hawks may be upset by even this much disclosure, and civil libertarians will wonder why the administration is speaking in vague generalities. Savage and the Times will almost certainly continue their lawsuit seeking the OLC memo about the killing, which is what’s really at issue here. The Obama administration was willing to release the OLC memos related to George W. Bush’s most controversial actions—namely, the brutal interrogations of non-citizens. It will continue to be difficult for the Obama team to argue that memos about their most controversial actions, the killing of citizens without charge or trial, should be exempt from the same type of disclosure.