The Washington Post reports that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel wrote a classified legal opinion in support of the al-Aulaqi killing. Carrie Budoff Brown* at Politico reports that former U.S. Representative and intelligence committee member Jane Harman says that “the Justice Department should release that memo” because the “debate on the legal grounds for that strategy should be more in the open.” I agree that the administration should release a redacted version of the opinion, or should extract the legal analysis and place it in another document that can be released consistent with restrictions on classified information.
I have no doubt that Obama administration lawyers did a thorough and careful job of analyzing the legal issues surrounding the al-Aulaqi killing. The case for disclosing the analysis is easy. The killing of a U.S. citizen in this context is unusual and in some quarters controversial. A thorough public explanation of the legal basis for the killing (and for targeted killings generally) would allow experts in the press, the academy, and Congress to scrutinize and criticize it, and would, as Harman says, permit a much more informed public debate. Such public scrutiny is especially appropriate since, as Judge Bates’s ruling last year shows, courts are unlikely to review executive action in this context. In a real sense, legal accountability for the practice of targeted killings depends on a thorough public legal explanation by the administration.
The best argument against disclosure is that it would reveal classified information or, relatedly, acknowledge a covert action. This concern is often a legitimate bar to publishing secret executive branch legal opinions. But the administration has (in unattributed statements) acknowledged and touted the U.S. role in the al-Aulaqi killing, and even President Obama said that the killing was in part “a tribute to our intelligence community.” I understand the reasons the government needs to preserve official deniability for a covert action, but I think that a legal analysis of the U.S. ability to target and kill enemy combatants (including U.S. citizens) outside Afghanistan can be disclosed without revealing means or methods of intelligence-gathering or jeopardizing technical covertness. The public legal explanation need not say anything about the means of fire (e.g. drones or something else), or particular countries, or which agencies of the U.S. government are involved, or the intelligence basis for the attacks. (Whether the administration should release more information about the intelligence supporting al-Aulaqi’s operational role is a separate issue that raises separate classified information concerns.) We know the government can provide a public legal analysis of this sort because presidential counterterrorism advisor John Brennan and State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh have given such legal explanations in speeches, albeit in limited and conclusory terms. These speeches show that there is no bar in principle to a public disclosure of a more robust legal analysis of targeted killings like al-Aulaqi’s. So too do the administration’s many leaks of legal conclusions (and operational details) about the al-Aulaqi killing.
A full legal analysis, as opposed to conclusory explanations in government speeches and leaks, would permit a robust debate about targeted killings – especially of U.S. citizens – that is troubling to many people. Such an analysis could explain, for example, whether the government believed that al-Aulaqi possessed constitutional rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth or other amendments, and (assuming the government concluded that he possessed some such rights) why the rights were not implicated by the strike. It could also describe the limits of presidential power in this context.
The Obama administration frequently trumpets its commitment to transparency and the rule of law. The President and many of his subordinates were critical of what they deemed to be unnecessarily secretive Bush administration legal opinions, and they disclosed an unprecedented number of them, including many classified ones. Now is the time for the administration to apply to itself a principle that it applied to its predecessor. It will be uncomfortable to disclose the legal analysis behind the al-Aulaqi killing, because the analysis — no matter how sound — will be second-guessed to death in some quarters. But that cannot be not a reason not to do it. Moreover, it is likely that releasing the opinion (or its reasoning) will show the Obama administration in a very good light to most American audiences.
A public accounting for the legal analysis behind the al-Aulaqi killing is the right thing to do, and the sooner the administration does it, the better off it will be.
* The original post incorrectly attributed this report to Josh Gerstein rather than Carrie Budoff Brown.