White House homeland security adviser John O. Brennan is expected to face tough, new questions about the U.S. use of drones to target Americans suspected of terrorism, when he appears Thursday before a Senate committee considering his nomination to serve as CIA director.
A newly revealed government memo makes clear just how broad the legal justification is for the targeted killings — which are the Obama administration’s signature counter-terrorism program. The memo has rekindled concern on Capitol Hill about the program, with many Democrats questioning the White House justification for the drone attacks on American terrorist targets.
The White House defended the program Tuesday as “legal,” “ethical” and “wise.”
Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, said the memo “does not … answer specific questions regarding the scope of the authority and the threshold for evidence” involved in deciding to target an American.
“I believe that Congress, at a minimum, should be privy to the actual opinions that authorize lethal action,” he added.
Sen. Angus S. King, a member of both the Senate Armed Forces and Intelligence committees, said he “believes that the use of lethal force against Americans is a serious and significant issue that deserves paramount attention,” a spokeswoman for the Maine independent said.
Mr. King asked for a full review of the U.S. military’s targeted-killing program last week during a confirmation hearing for former Sen. Charles Hagel, the Nebraska Republican President Obama nominated to serve as defense secretary.
Mr. King is also “very interested to hear Mr. Brennan’s responses” on the issue during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the aide said.
The hearing comes amid intensifying scrutiny of the use of drones, both domestically and overseas.
Last month, British attorney Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, launched an inquiry into the civilian impact of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Local media reports in both countries say that innocent bystanders are often killed in the strikes, fueling anti-American sentiment and helping extremists recruit.
On Monday, the Virginia city of Charlottesville become the first local jurisdiction in the United States to formally pass a resolution against the use for domestic intelligence or law enforcement of drones.
The resolution calls on Congress and the Virginia General Assembly “to adopt legislation prohibiting information obtained from the domestic use of drones from being introduced into a federal or state court, and precluding the domestic use of drones equipped with” weapons.
Eleven U.S. senators from both parties wrote to Mr. Obama this week, warning that the continued secrecy surrounding the targeted-killing program might prove an obstacle to Mr. Brennan’s confirmation. They included Mr. Udall and felow Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Susan Collins of Maine. All three are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The senators said they want to see the legal opinions underlying the administration’s claim that it is legal and constitutional for the president to order the death of a citizen without charge or trial if they have taken up arms against the United States.
They said those documents will allow lawmakers and the public “a full understanding of how the executive branch interprets the limits and boundaries of this authority … and whether the president’s power to deliberately kill American citizens is subject to appropriate limitations and safeguards.”