WASHINGTON The White House is refusing to share fully with Congress the legal opinions that justify targeted killings, while maneuvering to make sure its stance does not do anything to endanger the confirmation of John Brennan as CIA director.
Rather than agreeing to some Democratic senators' demands for full access to the classified legal memos on the targeted killing program, Obama administration officials are negotiating with Republicans to provide more information on the lethal attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, according to three congressional staff members.
The strategy is designed to produce a bipartisan majority vote for Brennan in the Senate Intelligence Committee without giving its members seven additional legal opinions on targeted killing sought by senators and while protecting what the White House views as the confidentiality of the Justice Department's legal advice to the president.
It would allow Brennan's nomination to go to the Senate floor even if one or two Democrats vote no to protest the refusal to share more legal memos.
At issue is the critical question of how Congress conducts oversight of a shadow war against suspected terrorists. The administration routinely reports on its lethal drone strikes to both the Senate and the House intelligence and armed services committees, but it has long rebuffed congressional attempts to see the legal opinions that authorize the strikes let alone requests to make them public.
Only after an unclassified Justice Department white paper summarizing the legal arguments was leaked to NBC News this month did the administration make two legal opinions on the targeted killing of U.S. citizens briefly available to members of the intelligence committees. But the documents were available to be viewed only for a limited time and only by senators themselves, not their lawyers and experts.
The arrangement frustrated members of the committee, who were not allowed to have their staff members study the highly complex legal opinions. But the reinvigorated public discussion set off by the nomination of Brennan has raised hopes in Congress that the debate will continue even if he is confirmed.
The refusal so far to share more of the opinions with Congress, or to make redacted versions of the memos public, comes despite a pledge of greater transparency by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address on Feb. 12.
The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has long called for all Justice Department legal opinions on intelligence to go to the committee. But a spokesman said she did not believe the issue should block Brennan's confirmation.
The administration is in discussions with Republican members of the Intelligence Committee about providing the trail of emails that were the basis of "talking points" from the intelligence agencies regarding the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, which killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans.
Such a concession would probably win at least some Republican votes for Brennan.