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Bessent: Barack Obama must release more information about drone strikes

Anti-war protesters disrupt the start of a nomination

Anti-war protesters disrupt the start of a nomination hearing for U.S. Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, DC. (Feb. 7, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

President Barack Obama is between a rock and a hard place politically as he pushes to win Senate confirmation of John Brennan, his nominee for CIA director.

Before giving him their votes some reticent Democrats want to see classified memos laying out the legal justification the administration claims for the targeted killings by drone it’s been doing around the world.

Republicans have a different agenda. Some of them are demanding more information on last year’s Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Bengazi Libya where four Americans were killed, including ambassador Christopher Stevens. 

Brennan is expected to be confirmed eventually, but to get the votes he needs Obama has reportedly decided he’d rather give up more information on Benghazi rather than on targeted killings. That may solve his immediate political problem, but Congress shouldn’t let him off the hook on targeted executions.

Two American citizens were among the suspected terrorists living abroad who the White House put on kill lists and then executed. Setting himself up as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner of Americans, even those suspected of terrorism, is a frightening amount of power for any president.

There needs to be some judicial check on that life or death authority — perhaps a special court to confidentially review the evidence in the days or years between putting an individual on the kill list and dispatching the drones.

There also needs to be meaningful congressional oversight, which is what senators demanding to see the classified memos are trying to ensure. Obama should give them up. He seemed to get that Feb. 12 when he delivered his State of the Union address.

“I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead I will continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”

Fine words, but so far Obama has only made two documents on the legal justification he claims for killing Americans, available briefly to Intelligence Committee members — and then for their eyes only, not those of their lawyers or experts.

That’s not good enough. Not when American citizens are marked for death.