WASHINGTON – Robert Gates, a former defense secretary and spymaster, is backing lawmakers' proposal to form a special court to review President Barack Obama's deadly drone strikes against Americans linked to al-Qaida.
Gates, who led the Pentagon for Presidents George W. Bush and Obama and previously served as the Central Intelligence Agency's director, said Obama's use of the unmanned drones follows tight rules. But he shares lawmakers' wariness over using the unmanned aircraft to target al-Qaida operatives and allies.
"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?" Gates said in an interview broadcast Sunday.
The use of remote-controlled drones — Obama's weapon of choice to strike al-Qaida with lethal missiles in places such as Pakistan and Yemen — earned headlines last week as lawmakers contemplated just how much leeway an American president should have in going after the nation's enemies, including its own citizens.
"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 nomination of John Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism adviser who oversaw many of the drone strikes from his office in the West Wing basement, kick-started the discussion.
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.
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 as it landed in Detroit in 2009.
"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."
Many lawmakers suggested uneasiness about the unfettered program.
"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," said Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine.
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.
Some Republicans were wary of 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.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said a separate 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."
Gates, Paul and King spoke with CNN's "State of the Union." Durbin appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press." Rogers was interviewed on CBS' "Face the Nation." McCain was on "Fox News Sunday."