Glenn Greenwald has a great post on the Administration’s refusal to say whether it can kill Americans inside the US. But he misstates how extreme Obama’s refusal to share Office of Legal Counsel memos is. That’s because he equates an Administration sharing OLC memos with the intelligence committee and sharing them with the public.
Critically, the documents that are being concealed by the Obama administration are not operational plans or sensitive secrets. They are legal documents that, like the leaked white paper, simply purport to set forth the president’s legal powers of execution and assassination. As Democratic lawyers relentlessly pointed out when the Bush administration also concealed legal memos authorizing presidential powers, keeping such documents secret is literally tantamount to maintaining “secret law”. These are legal principles governing what the president can and cannot do – purported law – and US citizens are being barred from knowing what those legal claims are.
You know who once claimed to understand the grave dangers from maintaining secret law? Barack Obama. On 16 April 2009, it was reported that Obama would announce whether he would declassify and release the Bush-era OLC memos that authorized torture. On that date, I wrote: “today is the most significant test yet determining the sincerity of Barack Obama’s commitment to restore the Constitution, transparency and the rule of law.” When it was announced that Obama would release those memos over the vehement objections of the CIA, I lavished him with praise for that, writing that “the significance of Obama’s decision to release those memos – and the political courage it took – shouldn’t be minimized”. The same lofty reasoning Obama invoked to release those Bush torture memos clearly applies to his own assassination memos, yet his vaunted belief in transparency when it comes to “secret law” obviously applies only to George Bush and not himself.
But it is not the case that Bush always sat on OLC memos. In fact, as Dianne Feinstein noted in John Brennan’s confirmation hearing, at least by the last year of the Bush Administration, Democrats had gotten Steven Bradbury to start turning over even the most sensitive OLC memos to Congress.
I wanted to talk about, just for a moment, the provision of documents. Senator Wyden and others have had much to do about this. But our job is to provide oversight to try to see that the CIA and intelligence communities operate legally.
In order to do that, it is really necessary to understand what the legal — the official legal interpretation is. So the Office of Legal Counsel opinions becomes very important.
We began during the Bush administration with Mr. Bradbury to ask for OLC opinions. Up til last night, when the president called the vice chairman, Senator Wyden and myself and said that they were providing the OLC opinions, we have not been able to get them. It makes our job to interpret what is legal or not legal much more difficult if we do not have those opinions.
Which made it possible to — as DiFi did in an exchange with Michael Mukasey on April 10, 2008 — force the (Bush) Administration to publicly disavow some of the more extreme positions endorsed by John Yoo. Continue reading