Obama makes a push for transparency before handing over executive power to Trump

By W.J. Hennigan for the Los Angeles Times.


President Obama is making a push for transparency in his last days in office before handing off the vast counter-terrorism apparatus he has built to President-elect Donald Trump, starting with a major address Tuesday defending his record on national security.

Obama’s speech, at the U.S. military’s Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., will also explain the legal and policy underpinnings that his administration has established over eight years in deciding whether and how to detain, interrogate or kill suspected terrorists. The White House released some details on its legal rationale ahead of the speech

The efforts at transparency were striking for an administration criticized for being secretive by news and watchdog organizations; Obama has used the Espionage Act more times than all other U.S. presidents combined to investigate leaks of government information. The bid for openness also served to make public additional facts that can be used to hold the Trump administration accountable, though the White House downplayed any message to the president-elect.

“It’s his final message to the nation on what he’s done and how he views these issues,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, told reporters before the president’s speech. “It’s something he would’ve done no matter who won the election.”

The administration shed new light on the use of force Monday by releasing several new documents that offers the first comprehensive view into the White House’s legal rationale on some of the nation’s most sensitive national security issues since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Among them were a 66-page report that lays out the framework guiding the “use of military force and related national security operations.” It explains in detail how a 2001 law written to authorize the fight against Al Qaeda and its allies has been used as the legal basis for pursuing a multiplying number of terrorist groups around the world, including Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Obama issued a memorandum encouraging future administrations to update the report publicly at least once a year.

Rachel Stohl, director of a task force on drone policy for the nonpartisan Stimson Center, who has pushed for years for more transparency and accountability from the administration on its counter-terrorism operations, cautioned that more work remained but tentatively praised Obama’s effort.

“Even if the document does not specifically target the incoming Trump administration, it takes an important step towards establishing clarity over the legal and policy framework regarding the use of force,” she said.

Only recently has the administration provided a window into the drone program, which targets individuals to be killed or captured in countries where the U.S. has not declared war, including Yemen, Pakistan and Libya.

The White House acknowledged in July that 64 to 116 civilians had been wrongly killed in 473 strikes by the U.S. from the start of Obama’s presidency until the end of last year. The vast majority of the attacks were launched by drones, officials said, but the estimate also covers some strikes using manned aircraft.

A month later, the Obama administration released a redacted version of its legal guidelines for deciding whom to kill, where and under what circumstances.

“It may be tempting to look at this report simply as a chronicle of a soon-to-be former administration,” said Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “Instead it should be seen as a benchmark from which to evaluate the Trump administration’s commitment to transparency and the rule of law.”

In his call, Rhodes said he also expected the president to explain his continued push to close the prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 59 detainees are held.

The Justice Department made a report public Monday laying out the administration’s legal justification for detention.

The president will explain “why we did what we did,” Rhodes said. “Any new team is going to want to look at that.”

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