Targeted Killing

Answering Emptywheel’s Question

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, February 28, 2013, 10:40 AM

Over at at the Emptywheel blog, Ms. Wheel colorfully asks of yesterday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing: “Boy, what fucking idiots run DOJ (and, presumably, the Obama Administration generally)”? She goes on, marveling at the administration’s stupidity for refusing to send an official to testify at the hearing:

Whoo boy! You had Trey Gowdy, of all people, out there endorsing the idea of killing people in everything from hot pursuit to stand your ground contexts, but still demanding oversight in this case. You had Republican after Republican (and more Republicans did show up, even given the committee imbalance) show an interest in the proper limits to a President’s authority to kill. Republican after Republican (plus a few Democrats, including John Conyers) complained that the Administration had blown off the committee.

I mean, I’ll take it. If the Administration wants to stupidly give the GOP a reason to make this a political issue, I’m happy to finally have someone pushing for oversight in this area.

But I can’t imagine what kind of stupidity drove the decision to blow off the committee.

I can imagine two reasons, though I agree with Marcy that it was stupid---and, I will also add, wrong---of the administration to stiff the committee. The first is John Brennan’s pending confirmation. The last thing administration wants right now, prior to a Senate vote on Brennan, is to create a forum in which officials get more questions on targeted killings.

The second reason, as I said at the hearing, is FOIA litigation. Every disclosure prompts more demands for more disclosures and prompts arguments that material is not, in fact, secret. So there’s a hunker-down-and-say-nothing mentality that has kicked in. As I say, it’s wrong. And as the tone of yesterday’s hearing---where Republicans and Democrats alike were clamoring for judicial review of targeting decisions---shows, the administration has a lot of work to do with Congress if it means to maintain confidence in its policies---work that will have to be done, at least in part, in public. But it’s not hard, in my opinion, to imagine what’s behind it.