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Attorney General Holder promises more openness about drone attacks

The White House is under pressure about targeting terrorists with drones, including a filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul. Attorney General Eric Holder told a Senate committee, ‘I heard you and the president heard you.’

In his State of the Union message last month, President Obama promised that “in the months ahead, [he would] continue to engage with 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.”

The important word there was “targeting,” referring to the drone attacks on alleged terrorists, including US citizens, that have stirred lawmakers of both parties, agitating civil libertarians, open-government advocates, and a growing portion of the American public.

Under increasing political and public pressure, the Obama administration has been providing some information on its drone attack program – far too slowly for its critics in Congress, one of whom (Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky) is filibustering the approval of John Brennan to head the CIA.

“I’m going to speak as long as I can to draw attention to something I find very disturbing,” said Senator Paul, who began speaking at midday Wednesday, an effort unlikely to prevent full Senate approval of Mr. Brennan to be the nation’s spymaster.

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On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder responded to the bipartisan congressional pressure for the administration to be more forthcoming about the targeted killings launched from drones.

“I heard you and the president has heard you,” Mr. Holder said.

The attorney general said he is confident that if the public had more information, there would be greater comfort that the administration is acting in conformity with the law. Without elaborating, Holder said a number of steps are going to be taken and that he expects “the president will be talking about this.”

Human Rights First called Holder’s statement a “positive development.”

In a statement Wednesday, organization senior counsel Daphne Eviatar said, “We welcome Attorney General Holder’s announcement that President Obama will be more forthcoming in the future, and we hope he’ll be forthcoming about a whole host of issues, including explaining more about who is being killed and how the legal framework applied comports with international legal requirements.”

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder got mixed reviews from Republican members regarding drone attacks.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina lauded the administration for its efforts to target terrorists, including the use of drones.

But Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas tried unsuccessfully to pin down the attorney general on what the freshman lawmaker sees as a key point.

“Does the Constitution allow a US citizen on US soil who doesn’t pose an imminent threat to be killed by the US government?” Senator Cruz asked repeatedly, pushing Holder for a yes-or-no answer. “If an individual is sitting quietly at a café in the United States, in your legal judgment, does the Constitution allow a US citizen on US soil to be killed by a drone?”

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Treating the question as hypothetical, Holder would only opine that he thought the situation as Cruz described it would be “inappropriate” for the use of lethal force of any kind.

Earlier this week, the White House agreed to release to the House and Senate intelligence committees additional opinions from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) related to the targeted killing of American citizens.

Human Rights First and other civil liberties groups are pushing for even more government openness about the drone strike program, including providing such legal opinions to all relevant congressional committees, as well as to staff with appropriate clearances and even to the general public.

“The American people deserve to see the justifications for who our government is killing and why,” Ms. Eviatar said.

A Fox News poll of registered voters reported this week shows the sensitive nature of the issue – especially as it relates to targeting US citizens on American soil.

By a wide margin (74 percent to 22 percent) respondents approve of using drones “to kill a suspected terrorist in a foreign country.” That includes majorities of Republicans (80 percent), independents (71 percent), and Democrats (69 percent), as well as both men (78 percent) and women (71 percent), according to the poll of 1,010 individuals contacted by land-line telephones and cellphones.

But the margin of approval for drone attacks drops to 60 percent (versus 36 percent opposed) if the suspected terrorist in another country is a US citizen.

Approval drops even further (56 percent in favor and 40 percent opposed) “to kill a suspected foreign terrorist on US soil,” and it falls into a majority disapproval (50 percent vs. 45 percent) for killing “a suspected terrorist who is a US citizen on US soil” – the kind of situation that Cruz was describing.

Reflecting one key aspect of the debate – whether or not Obama (or any other commander in chief) “on his own, should be able to authorize the use of deadly force, such as a drone strike, to kill a suspected terrorist who is a US citizen on US soil” – public opinion in this poll indicates strong disapproval (63 percent vs. 32 percent).