The Obama administration is wrong to withhold these documents from Congress and the American people. I say this as a former White House chief of staff who understands the instinct to keep sensitive information secret and out of public view. It is beyond dispute that some information must be closely held to protect national security and to engage in effective diplomacy, and that unauthorized disclosure can be extraordinarily harmful. But protecting technical means, human sources, operational details and intelligence methods cannot be an excuse for creating secret law to guide our institutions.
In refusing to release to Congress the rules and justifications governing a program that has conducted nearly 400 unmanned drone strikes and killed at least three Americans in the past four years, President Obama is ignoring the system of checks and balances that has governed our country from its earliest days. And in keeping this information from the American people, he is undermining the nation’s ability to be a leader on the world stage and is acting in opposition to the democratic principles we hold most important.
This is why I say, respectfully: Give them up, Mr. President.
Begin by fully sharing with the congressional committees that have jurisdiction all of the documents used by your administration to legally substantiate and govern the targeted killing program, including the justification for targeting U.S. citizens. The law that directs our government’s activities should not be kept secret.
All branches of the people’s government have the right to know the rules and standards under which the other branches act. Congress has the power to oversee the conduct of the executive branch, and lawmakers must be permitted to use it. As Woodrow Wilson wrote: “The informing function of Congress should be preferred even to its legislative function.” Appropriate congressional oversight is critical in building long-term credibility with the public across the political spectrum for the actions the administration undertakes in the people’s name.
This isn’t to say that the executive branch is obligated to disclose information on operational details or case-specific profiles that are, deservedly, highly classified. But that information can be redacted without undermining the public’s understanding of the legal justification on which the government’s actions are based.