Groups Challenge Obama: Commit to Curb Secret Law

On October 21 released a letter signed by 45 national security and transparency organizations urging President Obama to commit to making publicly available authoritative legal interpretations that are currently secret -– in order to begin to address domestic concerns that laws are being implemented in ways beyond what was thought allowable and to rebuild faith with our international partners. Among the groups joining the effort are the ACLU, the Constitution Project, Win Without War, Human Rights Watch, EFF, and the Liberty Coalition.

According to Patrice McDermott, Executive Director of, "This strong show of support from organizations that work on different issues and are on all parts of the political spectrum shows the breadth of concern about the effect of secret law on our democracy, and why it is an issue that President Obama must address. The public must have an understanding of the limits and bounds of our laws to have an informed debate about our nation's policies."

As the letter points out, secret interpretations of the law have been at the heart of several recent scandals ranging from the National Security Agency's surveillance programs to targeted killings and the use of drones. President Obama did the right thing by opting to declassify memos by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) that authorized interrogation methods many equated with torture, and he should act similarly to improve public understanding of our surveillance and drone policies.

Moreover, in order to leave a true legacy of openness and avoid future scandals, President Obama must publicly commit to giving the public access to documents by the OLC, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), and other bodies that authoritatively shape the government’s understanding of its power under the relevant statutes.

Recent leaks of information, in particular documents provided by Edward Snowden have raised not only significant concerns about what the government is doing in our name but also questions about whether the US's programs breach international law. At the end of the month the Obama Administration has a unique opportunity to address these concerns on an international stage during the meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in London.

As a part of the OGP, which the US helped launch in 2011, participating countries — including the US — must submit plans that include concrete commitments to make themselves more open and accountable. Curbing secret law must be a cornerstone of the plan scheduled to be released by the US during the London meeting.