Administration should lift veil of secrecy

Published 11:00 pm Friday, January 11, 2013

Critics of the Obama administration’s expanded use of pilotless drone aircraft to kill alleged terrorists abroad have been assured that the strikes are justified and legal. Yet, when The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union asked for detailed evidence of the government’s legal arguments, they were told that is a national security secret.

Recently, a federal judge ruled in the administration’s favor, though even she expressed exasperation: “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusions a secret.”

This is hard to take from a president who, as a candidate, promised to do a better job than the previous occupant of the White House in making important government information available to the American people. It is also hard to take from a president who has kept in place many of the war-on-terror tactics he found troubling or offensive when they were practiced by President George W. Bush. …

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The federal FOI Act is shot through with loopholes, and the administration didn’t have to do much heavy lifting to slip through several of them in this case. Besides, federal courts are typically deferential to presidential claims of national security to justify keeping information from the public.

The question is why the administration insists on keeping secret legal opinions that spell out the arguments for the legality and constitutionality of these drone strikes. … Why would they keep confidential the formal arguments in favor of drone killings? Government lawyers cited the standard national security arguments for protecting its sources and methods, but they just sound like so much legal boiler plate. …

The president obviously believes the attacks are morally and legally justified. He should release all legal justifications produced by his administration or explain to the American people why that cannot be shared with them.

Des Moines Register