Benjamin Wittes

The Washington Post on Holder’s Speech

My former colleagues on the Washington Post editorial page have weighed in quickly on Eric Holder’s speech yesterday with an editorial entitled, “It’s Time to Release the Drone Memos.” The gravamen of the editorial, as the title suggests, is that the administration “should release the Justice Department memorandum that lays out the domestic and international strictures which, it says, undergird its drone policy.” The editorial does not take issue with Holder’s speech. Indeed, it says generally that,

We agree with the thrust of Mr. Holder’s statements. But these are assertions based on the administration’s interpretation of the law, not an explication of which laws it relies on in justifying these strikes.

The country learned all too well during the Bush administration’s indefensible use of torture how existing legal authorities can be twisted. Soon after President Obama took office, Mr. Holder made public many of the Bush-era “torture” memos crafted by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel; he should now perform a similar public service by releasing — in redacted form, if necessary — the department memos that deal with drone strikes.

I certainly support releasing as much of the underlying documentation as possible, and I have no end of admiration for the Post editorial page. That said, this argument seems to me a little bit off. For one thing, I think the administration deserves considerable credit for–beginning with Harold Koh’s ASIL speech, continuing through Jeh Johnson’s and John Brennan’s speeches, and culminating in this one by Holder–laying out a great deal of its general legal theory. It has gone from near total silence on the subject as drone strikes ramped up to a fairly comprehensive account of the legal basis for what we are doing.

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