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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

GAP FOIAs Justice Department Assassination Memo

Kathleen McClellan, October 10, 2011

Last week, GAP filed a FOIA request with the Justice Department for the secret Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memo authorizing the assassination of radical Muslim cleric and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. There is no doubt that the release of the memo is in the public interest, as GAP's FOIA request articulates:

The U.S. government's killing of American citizen and alleged al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki is a matter of public interest, which the President himself addressed. More specifically, the government's legal justification for killing al-Awlaki has sparked national and international debate. The legal reasoning behind controversial government actions – especially those that take the lives of American citizens – is a matter of public interest, and should be a matter of public discourse. (Footnotes omitted).

In the time since GAP filed its FOIA request, the New York Times reported extensively on the memo's content, and the public debate over the legality of killing al-Awlaki intensified. Yet, despite the fact that much of the memo's reasoning appeared on the Times front page on Sunday, the Obama administration has refused to make the memo public, and thus, it has avoided answering hard questions about the justification for the killing.

Even individuals and organizations who argued that the al-Awlaki assassination was justified – such as theWashington Post and former OLC attorney Jack Goldsmith – have called for President Obama to make the memo public. Public discourse is vital for our democracy. The Obama administration touts its commitment to transparency and openness, and such a commitment is most needed when the President makes controversial decisions, like the one to target and kill an American citizen.


Kathleen McClellan is National Security and Human Rights Counsel for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.