Although Rand Paul will deservedly receive all the attention, yesterday’s marathon filibuster was catalyzed by the Obama administration’s general refusal to engage with Congress on the issue of targeted killings. Like any White House desiring maximum authority with minimal oversight, the Obama administration maintained that it is only required to report covert actions by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and counterterrorism operations by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to the requisite intelligence and armed services committees. While Congress is almost never satisfied with the responsiveness and openness of the executive branch, members who do not serve on the aforementioned committees are particularly upset about the lack of clarifying information on drones. In part, this is because the issue is so widely debated, but also because this administration’s practice echoes the even less responsive nature of the George W. Bush administration.
For over two years, members have requested at least twenty times the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos that provide a legal justification into all targeted killings. Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder was asked again when he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he promised to ‘look into it.” It is remarkable that Congress and the American public now have a declassified narrative of the OLC memos regarding the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, some of which Holder also declassified, but not the legal basis for when or why someone can be targeted and killed. Furthermore, it is important to note that the only reason we know anything about the White House detailed legal rationale is because someone leaked the Department of Justice white paper to NBC News.
Members and staffers on the Senate Armed Services and House Foreign Affairs committees (who have proper clearances) have asked repeatedly to receive closed-door briefings on aspects of targeted killings occurring in the geographic areas where they exercise oversight. They have been refused on several occasions, as have other requests by elected representatives from both chambers. In at least one instance, the members threatened to withhold funding (a la Vietnam) in support of lethal strikes unless additional briefings were provided. The White House called their bluff, and the threat was never carried out.
For an activity that has become the defining tactic of U.S. foreign policy, it is notable how little congressional members and staff members on both sides of the aisle know about targeted killings. They raise many concerns that go far beyond the statutorily limited oversight conducted by the intelligence and armed services committees. Yesterday, several members of the Senate intelligence committee also stood with Paul to highlight their own issues, which fall outside the purviews of their committee. There is also the enduring concern that—as under most administrations—Congress is not properly notified of other lethal covert activities. For example, in July 2009 the Wall Street Journal revealed that CIA had established kill or capture teams after 9/11 to go after suspected a-Qaeda members living in populated areas where drone strikes would not be appropriate. After this went public, ”congressional Democrats were furious that the program had not been shared with the committees,” and CIA director Leon Panetta shut down the teams.
The attention of U.S. policymakers and public on targeted killings has always been focused on today’s headlines, and projecting what might happen in five or ten years. Once a new “revelation” fades from the headlines, so does the interest. More important than the theater of Rand Paul’s filibuster would be its impact (if any) on rallying the sustained interest of his colleagues to examine the full scope of America’s ten years and four months-practice of targeted killings. This will only be possible if the White House—as it has promised to do for many months—decides to more comprehensively engage with Congress, the American people, and the world about this unending Third War.