Late last week, a long-standing struggle between Congress and the Obama administration over access to the legal opinions that are being used to justify the targeted killing of suspected terrorists overseas finally came to a head. Faced with the prospect that John O. Brennan’s confirmation as the new director of the CIA might stall, and under growing bipartisan pressure both inside and outside government, the administration partly relented and provided some of the relevant documents — the opinions justifying targeted killing specifically of American citizens — to members of the Senate and House intelligence committees. These are important and welcome developments, but they don’t go far enough. More information regarding the rules and legal basis for the targeted killing program should be turned over to more members of Congress, especially the Senate and House Judiciary committees. Moreover, the American people must be brought into the conversation.
Transparency strengthens our democracy and promotes efficient and effective governance. That is what the president told us when he took office. He was right. Still, our government has a long way to go to realize that principle, particularly when it comes to national security programs.
We have a significant stake in open government, both as former intelligence officials and as public citizens. We understand from experience the government’s need to keep certain information secret. Intelligence officers whose work is critical to our national security couldn’t do their jobs if properly classified information, such as intelligence sources and methods and sensitive operational details, were open to the public. Yet we also believe that when the cloak of secrecy extends too far – as it has with the targeted killing program and the previous “enhanced interrogation” program – both our democracy and our security suffer.
We recently joined with a bipartisan group of colleagues, through The Constitution Project, to urge the administration to lift the veil of secrecy around the targeted killing program. It bears repeating here what we said there: “Our constitutional system of checks and balances demands robust oversight by Congress and consideration and debate by an informed public. Neither is possible when the rules are hidden from Congress and from public view.”
When the rules are clear, officials carrying out national security policies can do so with confidence that they are acting within the bounds of the law. The government can build the public support necessary to sustain such programs over time.
While there is much that the executive branch can do to rein in excessive secrecy, open government is a shared responsibility. Congress too must do its part. Members from both parties are right to continue to press the executive branch for full access to the legal justification and procedures for targeted killing, but Congress should also seize opportunities directly to pull back the curtain on important national security matters that need not be kept secret to protect properly classified information. The Senate Intelligence Committee has one such opportunity now; it can vote to release a declassified version of its report on the “enhanced interrogation” program.
According to committee chair California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the roughly 6,000-page report – which culminates a three-year long study of millions of pages of classified documents – promises to be “the most definitive review” of the program ever conducted. In December, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee took the important step of adopting the report, which was then sent to the CIA for review (the agency’s comments were due in February but the Committee has yet to receive them). The next step is equally important: The Committee should release a declassified report to the public.
The public has a right to know what was done in its name, and to base on fact rather than Hollywood fiction its judgments on solemn questions such as whether the United States engaged in torture and torture’s efficacy. Only by honestly confronting the abuses of our nation’s past can we look forward with confidence that we will not repeat them.
Mr. Obama entered office promising an unprecedented level of open government. He reiterated his commitment to transparency during last month’s State of the Union address. It’s time to translate words into action. He should make public the documents that set forth the law and rules governing targeted killing, and work with the Senate Intelligence Committee to declassify its report. Our democracy will be stronger, and we will be safer for it.
Mary McCarthy is an attorney and former senior director for Intelligence Programs at the National Security Council. Paul R. Pillar, nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, is a former intelligence officer, including serving as the deputy chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center.