WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's use of unmanned drones to kill Americans who are suspected of being al-Qaida allies deserves closer inspection, lawmakers said Sunday as even some of the president's allies suggested an uneasiness about the program.
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 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. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
"The policy is really unfolding. Most of this has not been disclosed," the second-ranking Senate Democrat added.
Before John Brennan's confirmation hearing to lead the CIA on Thursday, 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 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 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. "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 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 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 Gates, Pentagon chief for Presidents George W. Bush and 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 Democratic leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. 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."
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, R-Mich. "There is not an American list somewhere overseas for targeting, that does not exist."
Other lawmakers seemed leery of the program's current 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."
And Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., questioned whether America's intelligence operations were benefiting from the killings.
"We are losing a lot of opportunities out there to actually extract people and get information," he said. "Human intelligence is really much more important than taking out individual targets."
During Thursday's hearing, Brennan defended drone strikes only as a "last resort," but he said he had no qualms about going after Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011. A drone strike in Yemen killed al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens. A drone strike two weeks later killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, a Denver native.
"I think it's very unseemly that a politician gets to decide the death of an American citizen," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. "They should answer about the 16-year-old boy, al-Awlaki's son who was killed not as collateral damage, but in a separate strike."
Those strikes came after U.S. intelligence concluded that the elder al-Awlaki was senior operational leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula plotting attacks on the U.S., including the failed Christmas Day bombing of an airplane landing in Detroit in 2009.
Lawmakers largely sided with the strategy even if they differed on how precisely to execute it.
"If you take up arms against America and you fight in a terrorist training camp or on the front lines in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Yemen, you shouldn't be surprised if America reaches out and exacts justice against you," said Republican Rep. Tom Cotton or Arkansas, who opposes bringing judges into the decision-making process.
Durbin appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press." King, Gates and Paul spoke with CNN's "State of the Union." Rogers was interviewed on CBS' "Face the Nation." McCain and Cotton were on "Fox News Sunday." Cole was a guest on ABC's "This Week."