The U.S. Justice Department flinched Thursday in a showdown with the House Judiciary Committee, agreeing to disclose documents detailing the agency's legal justification of drone strikes on alleged terrorists overseas.
Committee members were feeling a bit left out. More than two months ago, the White House caved to pressure from Congress and provided full Justice Department legal opinions to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as well as to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But the House Judiciary Committee never got to see the DOJ Office of Legal Counsel opinions, which were at the heart of a debate about the use of drones that overtook Capitol Hill in early February. Their requests ignored, top members of the committee scheduled a meeting for Thursday morning to issue subpoenas for the Justice Department documents.
"There is no reason why a similar bipartisan request from the House Judiciary Committee continues to go unanswered," Representatives Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) said in an April 10 letter to President Barack Obama.
Just before the hearing, however, DOJ agreed to provide the documents. Goodlatte, the chairman, announced he would postpone the meeting to authorize the subpoena and cancel it once arrangements are made for viewing the documents.
"It's unfortunate that it took a subpoena notice for the Department to cooperate with the House Judiciary Committee," Goodlatte said. "The House Judiciary Committee is charged with oversight over the Justice Department and U.S. Constitution and it is imperative that we explore the issues raised by the Administration’s policy."
The documents became the focal point of Congress amid confirmation hearings for Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan, who is regarded as a main architect of the drone program.
After years of secrecy about the drone program, President Obama earlier this year called top senators on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and agreed to turn over the Justice Department's full legal analysis. The move came days after NBC News published a leaked DOJ "white paper" on the drone program.
The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union are challenging the continued secrecy of the DOJ targeted-killing legal memos. The ACLU, represented by Dorsey & Whitney, and the Times this week filed their opening briefs in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. A federal trial judge in January reluctantly sided with the Justice Department in ordering the continued secrecy of the internal memos.