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Influential Democrat urges Obama to release drone opinions

March 13, 2013|By David Lauter
  • A Predator drone operated by U.S. Office of Air and Marine taxis towards the tarmac for a surveillance flight near the Mexican border.
A Predator drone operated by U.S. Office of Air and Marine taxis towards… (John Moore / Getty Images )

WASHINGTON - President Obama should stop “bobbing and weaving” and let Congress and the public see the classified legal opinions that govern the targeted killing of terrorism suspects overseas, former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta says.

In an opinion column for the Washington Post, Podesta writes that while “some information must be closely held to protect national security,” that “cannot be an excuse for creating secret law to guide our institutions.”

By refusing to release the legal opinions, which have governed nearly 400 drone strikes in the last four years, “President Obama is ignoring the system of checks and balances that has governed our country from its earliest days,” Podesta writes. “And in keeping this information from the American people, he is undermining the nation’s ability to be a leader on the world stage and is acting in opposition to the democratic principles we hold most important.”

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Podesta headed Obama's transition team and was White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration.

His call is the latest, and may prove the strongest, challenge to the White House secrecy about the drone war from within the president’s own party. Podesta is an influential voice in the Democratic Party, and unlike Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and others who have previously pushed for Obama to release the opinions, Podesta is close to Obama's inner circle.

Soon after Obama took office, the administration released previously classified legal opinions that approved the George W. Bush administration’s sometimes brutal interrogation of detainees. Obama administration officials have said that releasing those memos was proper because Obama already had ended the “enhanced interrogation” program after deciding that some interrogation methods were forms of torture. By contrast, officials say, the drone program is continuing.

But that secrecy has been coming under increasing pressure. Earlier this month, the administration agreed to share the legal opinions on the drone war with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee to ensure the confirmation of Obama’s choice for CIA director, John Brennan, who has been one of the architects of the policy.

Other members of Congress have insisted they too should see the opinions. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in recent congressional testimony that he agreed more disclosure was needed and that he expected Obama to address the subject soon.

In his article, Podesta said Obama should begin by sharing the legal opinions with Congress and then “make available to the public the criteria justifying the targeted killing of Americans and the safeguards put in place to protect against wrongful death.”

“We cannot lead if the world does not know the principles and laws that guide us, or if others can credibly say that our commitment to a government of the people, by the people and for the people is simply window-dressing, or that we sacrifice our constitutional principles when it is expedient,” Podesta wrote.

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