WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s plan to install his counterterrorism adviser as director of the CIA has opened the administration to new scrutiny over the targeted-killing policies it has fought to keep hidden from the public.
The refusal to provide details about one of the most controversial aspects of its drone campaign — strikes on U.S. citizens abroad — has emerged as a potential source of opposition to CIA nominee John Brennan.
Brennan faces a Senate confirmation hearing scheduled for Thursday.
The secrecy surrounding that policy was punctured Monday with the disclosure of a Justice Department “white paper” that spells out the administration’s case for killing Americans accused of being al-Qaida operatives.
The timing of the leak appeared aimed at intensifying pressure on the White House to disclose more-detailed legal memos that the paper summarizes — and at putting Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, on the defensive for his appearance on Capitol Hill.
Administration officials on Tuesday sought to play down the significance of the disclosure, saying that they have already described the principles outlined in the document in a series of speeches.
“One of the things I want to make sure that everybody understands is that our primary concern is to keep the American people safe, but to do so in a way that’s consistent with our laws and consistent with our values,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in response to questions about the document.
Nevertheless, the leak and signals from senior lawmakers that they may seek to delay, if not derail, Brennan’s confirmation made it clear that Obama’s decision to nominate him has drawn the White House into a fight it had sought to avoid.
Secret drone bases
The Obama administration’s targeted-killing program has relied on a growing constellation of drone bases operated by the CIA and the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command. The only strike intentionally targeting a U.S. citizen, a 2011 attack that killed al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki, was carried out in part by CIA drones flown from a secret base in Saudi Arabia.
The base was established two years ago to intensify the hunt against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the affiliate in Yemen is known. Brennan, who previously served as the CIA’s station chief in Saudi Arabia, played a key role in negotiations with Riyadh over locating an agency drone base inside the kingdom.
The Washington Post had refrained from disclosing the location at the request of the administration, which cited concern that exposing the facility would undermine operations against an al-Qaida affiliate regarded as the network’s most potent threat to the United States, as well as potentially damaging counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia.
A CIA spokesperson informed The Post on Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.
The white paper, which was first reported by NBC News, concludes that the United States can lawfully kill one of its own citizens overseas if it determines that the person is a “senior, operational leader” of al-Qaida or one of its affiliates and poses an imminent threat.
But the 16-page document allows for an elastic interpretation of those concepts and does not require that the target be involved in a specific plot, because al-Qaida is “continually involved in planning terrorist attacks against the United States.”
The paper does not spell out who might qualify as an “informed, high-level official” able to determine whether an American overseas is a legitimate target. It avoids specifics on a range of issues, including the level of evidence required for an American to be considered a “senior, operational” figure in al-Qaida.
The document’s emphasis on those two words, which appear together 16 times, helps to explain the careful phrasing the administration employed in the single case in which it intentionally killed an American citizen in a counterterrorism strike.
Within hours after al-Awlaki’s death in September 2011, White House officials described the U.S.-born cleric as “chief of external operations” for al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen, a designation they had not used publicly before the strike.
Officials said that Awlaki, previously portrayed mainly as a propagandist, was directly involved in a series of plots, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009.
The white paper, which was distributed confidentially to certain lawmakers last summer, doesn’t indicate when the underlying Justice Department memos on targeted killings of Americans were completed.
As a result, it is unclear whether the memos were in place before the first apparent attempt to kill Awlaki, a joint U.S.-Yemeni strike shortly before the foiled Detroit plot in 2009.
Three other Americans have been killed in U.S. airstrikes in Yemen since 2002, including Awlaki’s 16-year-old son. But U.S. officials have said those Americans were casualties of attacks aimed at other senior al-Qaida operatives.