WASHINGTON (AP) — President Obama’s use of unmanned drones to kill Americans who are suspected of being al Qaeda allies deserves closer inspection, lawmakers said Sunday, as even some of the president’s allies suggested an uneasiness about the program.
Mr. Obama’s stance toward the terrorist threats facing the United States has left some Democrats and Republicans alike nervous about the unmanned drones targeting the nation’s enemies from the skies. Questions about the deadly program dogged Mr. Obama’s pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency last week and prompted lawmakers to consider tighter oversight. All 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. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.
“The policy is really unfolding. Most of this has not been disclosed,” Mr. Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, added.
Before John O. Brennan’s confirmation hearing to lead the CIA on Thursday, Mr. 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 Qaeda abroad. That 2012 memo outlined the Obama administration’s decision to kill al Qaeda suspects without evidence that specific and imminent plots were being planned against the United States.
The nomination of Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser who oversaw many of the drone strikes from his office in the West Wing basement, kick-started the discussion about how the United States prosecutes its fight against the terrorist group.
Sen. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent, 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,” Mr. King said. “So I’m not suggesting something that would slow down response, but where there is time to go in and submit it to a third party that is a court, in confidence, and get a judgment that yes, there is sufficient evidence here.”
Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, himself a former CIA chief, suggested “some check” on a president’s ability to order drone strikes against American al Qaeda operatives would be appropriate and lent support to creating 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 Mr. Gates, Pentagon chief for President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama.
The potential model that some lawmakers are considering for overseeing such drone 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.
The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said she intends to review proposals for “legislation to ensure that drone strikes are carried out in a manner consistent with our values.”
Republicans seemed to oppose such an oversight proposal.
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said his members review all drone strikes on a monthly basis, both from the CIA and Pentagon.
“There is plenty of oversight here,” said Rep Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican. “There is not an American list somewhere overseas for targeting, that does not exist.”