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White House Reverses Course on Drone Document Ahead of Brennan Hearing

In a reversal on the eve of John O. Brennan’s confirmation hearing to lead the CIA, and with pressure mounting from Congress, the White House said Wednesday that the administration will provide classified Office of Legal Counsel legal documents about targeted killings of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism to the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

Earlier this week, a white paper summarizing the legal thinking on such operations that had been provided to Congress last year leaked out— but a number of lawmakers had always wanted the underlying legal opinions. On Wednesday, Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., hinted at a possible filibuster of Brennan’s nomination if he didn’t get them.

“Today, as part of the president’s ongoing commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters, the president directed the Department of Justice to provide the congressional Intelligence committees access to classified Office of Legal Counsel advice related to the subject of the Department of Justice white paper,” said an administration official speaking on condition of anonymity.

Brennan, who as the top White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser has guided the administration’s policy on drone strikes, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a public hearing on his nomination Thursday afternoon.

It was not immediately clear whether the advice that the administration signaled it would hand over was enough to fully placate Wyden and other senators who have been seeking the documents.

Two members of the committee who have been seeking the documents — Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Wyden — said they were encouraged by the news.

Wyden said President Barack Obama called him Wednesday evening to let him know that “effective immediately, I’ll be making the full legal opinion” available.

In most statements and letters, many of the lawmakers seeking the legal advice referred to memos, plural.

“Everybody’s saying, ‘opinion, opinions,’” Wyden told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday night. “It was clear he was talking about the full legal opinion, any and all, for purposes of making this commitment.”

Wyden said he never said he would filibuster Brennan’s nomination and that “what happened here is the cumulative effect about how strong the sentiment was on this.” Obama, he said, indicated that “he was going to be starting an extensive public discussion with the American people about these issues,” and Wyden said that would be an “encouraging first step.

Feinstein issued a written statement indicating that she looked forward to viewing the advice Thursday morning.

“I am pleased that the president has agreed to provide the Intelligence Committee with access to the OLC opinion regarding the use of lethal force in counterterrorism operations,” Feinstein said in a written statement. “It is critical for the committee’s oversight function to fully understand the legal basis for all intelligence and counterterrorism operations.”

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