Congress considers putting limits on drone strikes
APWASHINGTON -- A growing number in Congress is looking to limit U.S. authority to kill suspected terrorists, including American citizens. The Democratic-led outcry at the Obama administration's use of deadly drones was emboldened by the revelation in a newly surfaced Justice Department memo that shows drones can strike against a wider range of threats, with less evidence, than previously believed.
February 7, 2013, 11:13 am TWN
The drone program, which has been used from Pakistan across the Middle East and into North Africa to find and kill an unknown number of suspected terrorists, is expected to be a top topic of debate when the Senate Intelligence Committee grills John Brennan, the White House's pick for CIA chief, at a hearing Thursday.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee likely will hold hearings on U.S. drone policy, an aide said Tuesday, and Democratic Chairman Robert Menendez and the panel's top Republican, Sen. Bob Corker, both have quietly expressed concerns about the deadly operations. And earlier this week, a group of 11 Democratic and Republican senators urged President Barack Obama to release a classified Justice Department legal opinion justifying when U.S. counterterrorism missions, including drone strikes, can be used to kill American citizens abroad.
Without those documents, it's impossible for Congress and the public to decide “whether this authority has been properly defined, and whether the president's power to deliberately kill Americans is subject to appropriate limitations and safeguards,” the senators wrote.
“The threat posed by al-Qaida and its associated forces demands a broader concept of imminence in judging when a person continually planning terror attacks presents an imminent threat,” concluded the document.
The memo was immediately decried by civil liberties groups as “flawed” and “profoundly disturbing” — especially in light of 2011 U.S. drone strikes in Yemen that killed three American citizens.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, echoing comments Brennan made in a speech last April, called the strikes “legal, ethical and wise” and said they are covered by a law that Congress approved allowing the use of military force against al-Qaida.
“And certainly, under that authority, the president acts in the United States' interest to protect the United States and its citizens from al-Qaida,” Carney said Tuesday.
“It is a matter of fact that Congress authorized the use of military force against al-Qaida,” Carney said. “It is a matter of fact that al-Qaida is in a state of war against us and that senior leaders, operational leaders of al-Qaida are continually plotting to attack the United States, plotting to kill American citizens as they did most horrifically on September 11th of 2001.”
Three days after Sept. 11, 2001, Congress approved a law authorizing the military to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against al-Qaida and other groups believed to be helping or harboring the global terror network, including the use of drone strikes. In the decade since the attacks, U.S. intelligence officials say, al-Qaida has splintered into a number of affiliates and allied sympathizers. That means the current laws could allow military force against thousands of extremists across the Middle East and North Africa who have limited or no ability to strike the United States.
Both the CIA and the U.S. military are authorized to remotely pilot unmanned, missile-carrying drones against terror suspects. It's unknown exactly how many strikes have been carried out, but experts say that drone attacks in Pakistan are conducted by the CIA, while those in Yemen and Somalia, for example, are by military forces.
The drones have strained diplomacy between the U.S. and the nations where the strikes are carried out, as civilians have been killed alongside the targeted terrorists, even though most nations have given Washington at least tacit agreement to carry out the attacks.