With the fate of his pick to head the CIA in danger, President Obama reversed course Wednesday night and released to Congress the classified legal advice that the Justice Department has given the White House on using drones to execute American citizens in the war on terrorism.
The about-face came less than a day before John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s homeland security adviser and his pick to be CIA director, was to face a Senate confirmation hearing, and hours after Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, threatened to hold up the appointment unless more information was forthcoming.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Obama would send lawmakers the classified rationales as part of his “commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters.”
The official added Wednesday evening that Mr. Obama had directed the Justice Department to provide the Senate and House intelligence committees with the classified advice from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.
Senate Democrats huddled with Mr. Obama in Annapolis on Wednesday to talk about the year’s agenda.
Outside of the retreat, Mr. Wyden threatened to “pull out all the stops” in his effort to get access to the legal analysis, including delaying Mr. Brennan’s nomination.
“I want it understood that because this is such a central [issue], you have an individual with enormous influence who is really the architect of the counterterror policy in the Obama administration, that I am going to pull out all the stops to get the actual legal analysis because without it, in effect, the administration is practicing secret law,” Mr. Wyden told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
Mr. Wyden stopped short of saying he would filibuster the nomination, only that he planned to bring it up during Mr. Brennan’s confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the first round in what is expected to be an intense series of questioning by lawmakers.
On Wednesday evening, Mr. Wyden told The Associated Press that Mr. Obama had called him to give him the news of the administration’s decision to release the legal opinion.
“This is an encouraging first step,” he said. “There is now an opportunity to build on it.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and Senate intelligence committee chairwoman, said she expected to receive the information Thursday morning, just hours before Mr. Brennan’s hearing.
The 16-page legal memo justifying drone attacks was obtained and published by NBC News earlier this week, and has reignited a heated debate over U.S. policy in the war on terrorism.
Several lawmakers signaled that they would use Mr. Brennan’s hearing before the Senate intelligence committee as a chance to delve into the justification.
The memo says the U.S. can carry out targeted drone executions even when the U.S. doesn’t have “clear evidence that a specific attack in U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”
The White House this week defended the drone program as “legal,” “ethical” and “wise.”
In written answers to questions from the Senate intelligence committee before the hearing, Mr. Brennan described how individuals are targeted for drone strikes, saying whether a suspect is deemed an imminent threat — and therefore appropriate for targeting — is made “on a case-by-case basis through a coordinated interagency process” involving intelligence, military, diplomatic and other agencies.
Democrats in Congress such as Mr. Wyden have begun to express stronger opposition to the use of drones, but the Republican response has been more muted. House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, on Wednesday declined an invitation to criticize the administration drone memo and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, expressed his “100 percent” support of the use of drones against terrorism suspects.
Mr. Brennan’s nomination will also raise questions about American treatment of suspected terrorist detainees, including waterboarding.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, wrote Mr. Brennan late Wednesday asking him to clarify whether he ever took steps to try to halt the practice and what other enhanced interrogation techniques he approved of.
Mr. McCain also asked Mr. Brennan to explain whether the U.S. would be willing to see other countries adopt the same drone policies; what role he had in drafting the erroneous talking points that administration officials used to discredit reports of terrorism after the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya; and whether he leaked classified information last year to press outlets on the drone program, the government’s cyberweapons program or the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.