PORTLAND, Ore. – After requesting it for two years, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has finally received the Obama administration's full legal analysis on why it thinks it can target and kill Americans suspected of terrorism. After it was supplied, he now publicly supports President Obama's pick to lead the CIA.
He, along with other senators on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, voted Tuesday in Washington, D.C. to advance John Brennan to a full Senate vote.
"We are pleased that we now have the access that we have long sought and need to conduct the vigilant oversight with which the committee has been charged," Wyden said in a joint press release with Sens. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.
All three senators sit on the Senate's intelligence committee.
The controversy stems from the killing of three American citizens in Yemen. Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan were killed in a drone strike in September 2011. The Obama administration alleged al-Awlaki had plotted attacks against the United States. Two weeks later, al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, was also killed in a strike.
It was eventually reported that the U.S. Department of Justice had provided the White House with legal opinions that it said justified the killing of al-Awlaki even though he was never captured, officially charged with a crime or tried in a court of law.
Wyden battled the administration for two years and sent open letters to Attorney General Eric Holder and Brennan, a top assistant to the president on counterterrorism, asking for the opinions but received no official response.
It was not until 11 senators, led by Wyden, wrote an open letter to President Obama asking for the opinions two days before Brennan’s confirmation hearing in early February that Wyden got an official response.
Obama called the senator the night before Brennan's hearing and told Wyden he would direct the Justice Department to release the opinions. Reportedly, however, the Justice Department did not immediately provide all of the requested documents. That delay was one of the factors that pushed back the intelligence committee's vote until today.
Sens. Wyden, Udall and Collins said in the news release they believe the next step should be to "bring the American people into this debate and for Congress to consider ways to ensure that the President's sweeping authorities are subject to appropriate limitations, oversight, and safeguards."
There was no one immediately available Tuesday from the Obama administration to discuss any plans it has to involve the American public in the debate.
The legal analysis remains officially classified.
For Wyden, a key factor in wanting the legal opinions has been to apply congressional oversight and had called the administration's refusal to release the opinions to authorized members of Congress, such as himself, "unacceptable."
Wyden has said there "can undoubtedly be some circumstances" where the president may have the authority to kill American citizens abroad who are suspected of terrorism; however, he argued there could be no way the appropriate congressional oversight could take place unless the administration made its legal rationale available to the intelligence committee.
Wyden has also questioned the administration on whether it believes it has the authority to conduct drone strikes on U.S. soil. Separately, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, has also questioned administration officials on that issue and received a letter from Brennan on Tuesday stating that the CIA is not authorized to conduct such operations.
But Paul also said a letter he received from Holder doesn't rule out the possibility of the administration using drone strikes within the United States.
"The U.S. Attorney General's refusal to rule out the possibility of drone strikes on American citizens and on American soil is more than frightening - it is an affront the Constitutional due process rights of all Americans," Paul said.
In their press release, the senators thanked Paul for his efforts and said Brennan "will be (a) principled and effective leader" for the CIA and they "look forward to working with him in his new capacity."
However, some Senate Republicans, including John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have threatened to block Brennan's full confirmation insisting they need better explanations on Brennan's views on torture and more details about what happened in the attack in Benghazi, Libya last September that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
This version now references AG Holder's letter to Sen. Paul.
KATU.com reporting on this topic: Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden's push for this rationale: