Sen. Wyden: Debate Over Drone Secrecy Just Beginning

Speaking at a panel at George Washington Law School this morning, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) indicated that his struggle with the Obama administration for more transparency on national security matters is just beginning.

Wyden was the opening speaker at a Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington event on drones, in which he laid out his position on the secrecy surrounding the Obama administration’s counterterrorism targeted killing program.

Wyden made clear during his talk that he believed that there are “certainly legitimate reasons” for the government to keep some matters secret, including the details of covert operations. Sources and methods — or the precise ways that intelligence is collected — are in a very different basket than keeping the law secret, Wyden explained. “Secret operations are different than secret laws,” Wyden said. What Wyden is firmly opposed to is secret interpretations of public laws by the Executive Branch without the conclusions being disclosed:

WYDEN: [W]e aren’t going to take a backseat to anybody — not anybody — on the question of protecting genuinely sensitive sources and operations. But I am also not going to take a backseat to anybody in the effort to try to make sure our public laws stay public. And that’s what this is, in effect, discussion is all about.

At the forefront of Wyden’s concerns is a set of classified memos from the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel laying out the justifications for when force can be used against American citizens overseas. An unclassified white paper summarizing those memos leaked to the press last month, stirring up the current debate.


Wyden indicated that he had spent the last two years asking the administration for access to the DOJ memos on targeting Americans abroad. As part of its deal to have John Brennan confirmed as CIA Director, the White House has turned over those memos to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, but has not declassified them as of yet. These memos, Wyden believes, as the official interpretation of the Executive Branch on how it reads current laws need to be made public. At present, there is no one place within the law that Americans can go to see what the standard is with regard to targeting Americans, Wyden said.

“I don’t buy that,” Wyden said when asked about whether the memos reveal too much in the way of operational details to be declassified. “That’s what we have redaction for.” Wyden was the only member of the Democratic Caucus to join Rand Paul’s nearly thirteen-hour long filibuster of John Brennan last week, though he disagreed with Paul on the forthrightness of the administration.

House Democrats earlier this week wrote to the White House also demanding the declassification of the DOJ memos, as well as answers related to the broader use of drones in warfare.