Closer scrutiny of killer drones urged
WASHINGTON — President Obama's use of unmanned drones to kill Americans who are suspected of being al-Qaida allies deserves closer inspection, lawmakers said on Sunday as even some of the president's allies suggested an uneasiness about the program.
Obama's stance toward the terrorist threats has left Democrats and Republicans alike nervous about the unmanned drones targeting the nation's enemies from the skies. Questions about the deadly program dogged Obama's pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency last week and prompted lawmakers to consider tighter oversight. Killings carried out under the drone program have ballooned under the president's watch.
“We are in a different kind of war. We're not sending troops. We're not sending manned bombers. We're dealing with the enemy where we find them to keep America safe. We have to strike a new constitutional balance with the challenges we face today,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
“The policy is really unfolding. Most of this has not been disclosed,” the second-ranking Senate Democrat added.
The potential model that some lawmakers are considering for overseeing such attacks is a secret court of federal judges that now reviews requests for government surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases. In those proceedings, 11 federal judges review wiretap applications that enable the FBI and other agencies to gather evidence to build cases. Suspects have no lawyers present, as they would in other U.S. courts, and the proceedings are secret.
Before John Brennan's confirmation hearing to lead the CIA, Obama directed the Justice Department to give the congressional intelligence committees access to classified legal advice providing the government's rationale for drone strikes against American citizens working with al-Qaida abroad. That 2012 memo outlined the Obama administration's decision to kill al-Qaida suspects without evidence that specific and imminent plots were being planned against the United States.
The nomination of Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism adviser who oversaw many of the drone strikes, kick-started the discussion about how the United States prosecutes its fight against the terrorist group.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, said he prefers a review before the remote-operated aircraft fire on someone.
“It just makes me uncomfortable that the president — whoever it is — is the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner, all rolled into one,” King said.
Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, himself a former CIA chief, suggested “some check” on a president's ability to order drone strikes against American al-Qaida operatives would be appropriate and lent support to establishing a special court that would review such requests.
“I think that the rules and the practices that the Obama administration has followed are quite stringent and are not being abused. But who is to say about a future president?” said Gates, Pentagon chief for Obama and President George W. Bush.
The Democratic leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein of California, said she intends to review proposals for “legislation to ensure that drone strikes are carried out in a manner consistent with our values.”
Some lawmakers seemed leery of the program's reach even as they lined up against the oversight proposals.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said a Feinstein-backed oversight panel would be “an encroachment on the powers of the president of the United States.”
“But what we need to do is take the whole program out of the hand of the Central Intelligence Agency and put it into the Department of Defense, where you have adequate oversight,” McCain said. “Since when is the intelligence agency supposed to be an air force of drones that goes around killing people? I believe that it's a job for the Department of Defense.”
Durbin appeared on NBC's “Meet the Press.” King and Gates spoke with CNN's “State of the Union.” McCain was on “Fox News Sunday.”