Imagine if President George W. Bush or senior members of his administration asserted that they had the power to assassinate any person, including American citizens on American soil, because they merely suspected them of being involved in a terrorist plot.
Now, imagine that they went a step further and claimed that this broad new power was not subject to any oversight by Congress or the judiciary or international law.
A lot of left-wingers would be apoplectic. And they would be right.
Sadly, a Democratic president, Barack Obama, and senior national security officials in his administration appear to be wielding just that kind of power without any oversight, according to a memorandum outlining the extent of the U.S. drone program uncovered by NBC News Investigative Reporter Michael Isikoff.
Yet, the absence of national outrage is deafening.
Yes, the use of drones is better than sending troops. And yes, Congress did grant the president authorization to fight and kill terrorists.
But the use of drone to kill a U.S. citizen – Anwar Al-Alakwi, a New Mexico born convert to Al Qaeda – raises major civil liberty questions about the need for Congress and the courts to review the president’s lethal use of drones.
As a firm believer in the U.S. Constitution, I was alarmed when the Bush administration used the broad powers afforded to it by Congress under the PATRIOT Act to monitor citizen’s phone calls, travel habits, emails, Internet activity, bank accounts and library records, often without a warrant.
As a journalist I’ve written that Congress was wrong – outright negligent and cowardly – to turn away from its oversight responsibilities as the Bush administration jailed terror suspects without any legal safeguards, sent suspects to jails in other countries and even had U.S. agents use enhanced interrogation techniques to torture people.
President Obama continued many of the Bush administration’s policies. Though there were some notable exceptions. He signed an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay, only to have it blocked by Congress. He discontinued the practice of waterboarding.
As President Bush’s Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, recently said on Fox News: “It seems to me that the approach that the Obama administration is following is consistent with and really derived from the Bush administration approach to the War on Terror.”
Bolton is right.
And now the drone program takes the secret use of federal power against an American citizen to a level never seen before.
It is worth noting that the administration did not even officially acknowledge the existence of the drone program until April of 2012.
The person they chose to make this public disclosure was the man who President Obama has now selected to take charge of the CIA, John Brennan.
It is a fitting choice because Mr. Brennan is the architect of the U.S. drone program. It has been widely reported that Brennan is the keeper of the “Disposition Matrix” which the president uses to determine which terror suspects are targeted by drones.
(Seriously, that is what it is called – “the Disposition Matrix”) Even George Orwell would say that sounds creepy. But I digress.
Brennan had served in the Bush administration as Deputy Executive Director of the CIA and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Mr. Obama had reportedly considered nominating him as CIA Director in his first term but pressure over his involvement with waterboarding forced the president to nominate Leon Panetta.
Now Panetta is retiring and President Obama is nominating Mr. Brennan. He is will face tough questions about the drone program from the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearing this week.
So far, Brennan and Attorney General Eric Holder have maintained that the drone program has been conducted within the bounds of the law.
Yet, as Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden has pointed out, many questions remain about the program.
For instance, how much evidence does the President need to determine someone can be killed with a drone? In other words, what is the standard or the burden of proof? Is there one?
And who makes the final decision? Apparently an “informed high level” official can determine there is an “imminent threat” and authorize lethal use of the drone. Is that official the president? Is it a national security aide?
Also, as Senator Wyden has asked: Are there any geographical limitations to the president’s ability to kill people with drones? Put another way, could the president send a drone armed with a “Hellfire” missile to kill an American on American soil in their home?
We simply do not have clear answers to these questions.
The drone program has proven to be an effective tool in the War on Terror. However, there is a lack of oversight and accountability that has characterized the program so far.
It is simply too dangerous to place this much power in the hands of one person in these dangerous times — even if that person is the president of the United States.
It is time for Mr. Brennan and President Obama to speak publicly to these legitimate Constitutional concerns.