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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senators Jay Rockefeller (WV) and Pat Leahy (VT), both Democrats, found a deaf ear in President Obama when they expressed renewed calls for more government transparency in regard to drone activity.
In spite of calling for greater transparency when he ran against George W. Bush, the president argued executive privilege to keep such information classified and therefore secret from lawmakers. Both Leahy and Rockefeller said they are deeply troubled that the White House refuses to share memos from the Office of Legal Counsel concerning the killing of Americans by drones.
Sources say that Rockefeller was especially dissatisfied with the Obama’s stance but the president refused to concede. “It was a reasonable conversation. [Obama] basically said it was privileged information and that the president is entitled to confidential discussions with his advisers,” said one source.
While the conversation appears to have been mostly civil, it is an extraordinary development in a disagreement that was dramatically highlighted last week when Senator Rand Paul (R – KY) staged a 13-hour filibuster in an effort to get the administration to state that it would not use drones to attack an American inside the United States. Attorney General Eric Holder ultimately said it would not, as long as the American was not actively engaged in combat against the United States.
Another source said this isn’t the first time a Democrat has pushed the president on the drone issue. A senator also asked about the drone strikes at the Democrats’ retreat in February. Such retreats are usually reserved for party strategy and a show of unity rather than policy statements.
A Rockefeller spokesman referred to the senator’s questioning of the administration’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. Rockefeller has complained that the administration’s refusal to share data was a “threat” to a functioning relationship with the Senate.
Clapper responded by saying, “When there are documents that are elsewhere in the executive branch— OLC opinions just to name one example—or when we are attempting to abide by a long-standing practice, which has been practiced by both Republican and Democratic administrations, of executive privilege, I think that’s where we begin to have problems.”
Civil liberties advocates say this subject is significantly weightier than run-of-mill partisan squabbles. “It’s as serious as it gets,” said Raha Wala, a lawyer with the group Human Rights First. “The president promised more transparency on this in his State of the Union address and we’re waiting. A stand-off with Congress on congressional oversight would be a big step backwards.”
Wala says there are no grounds for the White House to assert privilege anyway, even in the unlikely event of a Democrat Senate pushing a Democrat president into a high-stakes legal showdown. “What we’re talking about is essentially the official legal and policy position of the government on when it thinks it can kill people suspected of terrorism,” Wala said. “This shouldn’t be the subject of an executive privilege claim. We’re not talking about pre-decisional advice or interagency deliberations.”