John Podesta, one of the most influential policy advisers in the Democratic Party, has leveled a blistering attack on President Barack Obama for his refusal to provide the legal rationale for drone strikes. The criticism is sure to rattle the White House and congressional Democrats.

“In refusing to release to Congress the rules and justification governing a program that has conducted nearly 400 unmanned drone strikes and killed at least three Americans in the past four years, President Obama is ignoring the system of checks and balances that has governed our country from its earliest days,” Podesta writes in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “In keeping this information from the American people, he is undermining the nation’s ability to be a leader on the world stage and is acting in opposition to the democratic principles we hold most important.”

Podesta called on the president to give Congress all the documents that legally substantiate the drone program. So far, the administration has released only an abbreviated Justice Department memorandum; Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress last week that the administration is “struggling” to find ways to be more transparent.

The Podesta critique, following the much publicized filibuster by Republican Senator Rand Paul last week -- which few Democrats embraced -- is sure to intensify the criticism of the president from his own party as well as from Republicans.

Podesta was President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, ran the presidential transition for Obama, has been a strong supporter of the president and is chairman of the Center for American Progress, the influential research organization that has supplied top officials and policies to this administration.

If the past is any guide, top White House officials will privately lash out at Podesta -- who almost certainly gave them advance notice about the article -- and try to head off further criticism. That’s likely to be futile as pressure builds for more displays of the transparency that candidate Obama promised while attacking the secretive policies of President George W. Bush.

Coincidentally, the self-styled citizens lobby Common Cause is sponsoring a forum this week to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Watergate hearings. At Wednesday’s session, Democratic counsels of that era worried aloud that some of the Obama administration’s justifications for its national security policies were uncomfortably similar to President Richard Nixon’s contention that any action is permissible so long as the president says it is.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. E-mail him at ahunt1@bloomberg.net or follow him on Twitter.)