The White House drew scorn from both sides of the aisle on Tuesday after it refused to send a witness to the first Senate hearing on drone warfare and targeted killings.
By ducking the panel, the Obama administration only fueled questions about its drone program, its legal rationale for global strikes against terrorists and if, and under what circumstances, it believes American citizens could be put in the cross hairs.
“Nobody outside a very small group inside the U.S. executive branch knows how we are making these decisions,” said Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University and a member of the six-person panel at Wednesday’s hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution.
“Now we have the executive branch making a claim that it has the right to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth at any time, for secret reasons based on secret evidence in a secret process undertaken by unidentified officials,” she added.
The administration has assured Congress and the public of one thing: that it does not believe it could use a drone or any other method to kill an American on U.S. soil if that person does not pose an imminent threat.
It offered that opinion only after Sen. Rand Paul’s now-famous 13-hour filibuster, during which the Kentucky Republican held up the confirmation of CIA Director John O. Brennan until he received answers about the drone program.
Tuesday’s panel of witnesses discussed in great detail the constitutionality of targeted killings and whether the drone program is truly revolutionary, or whether it’s simply the application of new technology to age-old wartime assassinations.
But many questions remain, including, for example, what lengths the administration would go to in order to apprehend an American citizen abroad before killing him, if the person is believed to be working with terrorists.
Most of those questions can only be answered by the White House, which has maintained a great deal of secrecy over its use of drones.
Senators expressed disappointment that, even after the hearing was postponed for one week to accommodate the administration, it refused to send someone.
The administration defended itself on Wednesday morning, promising to work with Congress and provide answers in the future.
“We have been in regular contact with the committee about how we can best provide them the information they require,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “As the president has indicated, we will continue to engage Congress and to ensure that our counterterrorism efforts are not only consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but even more transparent to the American people and to the world.”
The subcommittee would’ve preferred if that promised information had been given at Tuesday’s hearing.
“I hope in future hearings we’ll have an opportunity to work with the administration more closely,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and subcommittee chairman. His Republican counterpart, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, echoed those sentiments, as did Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota.
Mr. Franken also joked that, in a rare occurrence, he and Mr. Cruz shared a lot of the same questions and agreed on some points about when, where and against whom drone strikes may be appropriate.
That agreement underscores how the drone issue has transcended party politics. Following Mr. Paul’s filibuster, he came under fire from fellow Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who defended deference to the president when it comes to national security and use of the military, including drones.
Mr. Graham, a South Carolina Republican, reiterated his position at the hearing, singling out the notion that a special “assassination court” could be established to advise the White House whether a drone strike passes constitutional muster.
“My belief is there is nothing more basic to being the commander-in-chief than being able to order people into battle and being able to suppress the enemies of this nation,” he said. “If you want to talk about transparency [of the drone program] then count me in … but if you’re contemplating conferring the power from the commander-in-chief to a bunch of unelected judges to make wartime decisions, count me out.”
While everyone at Tuesday’s hearing supported a certain level of executive authority over matters such as drone strikes, some made the case that the U.S. risks its reputation when innocent civilians are killed in those attacks.
“I am concerned that we may have ceded some of our moral high ground,” said retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, who also testified Tuesday.