Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said drone strikes against U.S. citizens should be subject to independent review, throwing his support behind an effort to restrict presidential action when it comes to killing American citizens.
Gates said on today’s CNN’s “State of the Union” program that he believes the Obama administration has applied stringent safeguards in the targeted killing of American citizens suspected of terrorism “but who is to say about a future president?”
The issue, which received little attention during President Barack Obama’s first term, became a central focus during the Senate confirmation hearing of John O. Brennan, nominated to be the new chief of the Central Intelligence Agency. Both Republicans and Democrats continued to press the issue on the Sunday morning talk shows.
“The president, a politician, Republican or Democrat, should never get to decide someone’s death by flipping through some flashcards,” Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said on the CNN program.
Senators last week challenged Brennan about the legality of targeted drone strikes against U.S. citizens linked to al-Qaeda, including questioning the legal foundation the administration uses to make those strikes. That basis became public in a set of Justice Department memos to the committee handed over just hours before the hearings began.
The administration has refused to provide basic information about the scope of the program, including the death toll.
Gates was Democratic President Barack Obama’s first defense secretary, and his support for an added layer of review will further strengthen the case, made by some lawmakers, that the sole decision-making authority on some drone strikes should be taken out of the White House.
Taking the decision to kill American citizens out of the hands of the president and subjecting it to judicial or congressional review “would give the American people confidence that there was, in fact, a compelling case,” the former defense secretary said.
Senator John McCain, speaking on the “Fox News Sunday,” said that he opposes a so-called drone court because it would be “an encroachment on the powers of the president.” He also said the program should be under the control of the Defense Department, where it would have more congressional oversight, rather than the CIA.
“Since when is the intelligence agency supposed to be an air force of drones that goes around killing people,” said McCain, an Arizona Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee.
Democrats weighed in as well, insisting that oversight of the drone strikes, which have proven one of the most successful weapons against the leadership of various terrorist organizations, isn’t a partisan issue.
“I’ve looked into this and haven’t found one public hearing on drones,” Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, said on ABC’s “This Week” program.
“I’m glad the President invited the conversation,” Ellison said. “I think we ought to take him up with it.” He was referring to administration’s vow to discuss the legal basis for strikes, including the release of documents.
Some lawmakers insisted that the targeting of U.S. citizens in drone strikes has precedent in previous conflicts. Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, compared it with instances of Americans joining enemy forces in World War I and World War II.
“If you join forces with the enemy, we have a long-standing tradition in this country that you lose your constitutional protections,” said Rogers, who heads the House Intelligence Committee.
He said Anwar al-Awlaki, an American cleric suspected of involvement in terrorist operations, was no longer protected by due process when he “engaged in belligerent activities against the United States.” A drone strike killed Awlaki in September, 2011, incinerating the car in which he was riding.
Rogers said oversight over the process of selecting targets and approving drone strikes already exists through the intelligence committees in both the House and Senate. He said his committee goes to the CIA monthly to review hits on terrorist targets and that, as chairman, he reviews “every single air strike.”
“This is a serious matter but I do think that the oversight rules have been, I think, consistent,” Rogers said.
If confirmed as CIA director, Brennan, a 25-year veteran of the agency, said he would ensure “that any actions comport with our law” and at the same time make sure “that we do everything possible before we need to resort to lethal force.”
Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, said on the ABC program that he believed Obama had opened himself up to political risk by becoming so directly involved in the strikes, including personally approving the target list.
Gates said that in some cases the strikes have amounted to “being able to execute, in effect, an American citizen.”
The former defense secretary said he was an early supporter of drones because of their value in intelligence gathering over the battlefield. He defended them as a precise weapon that results in fewer civilian casualties.
“If they see people moving into the area, they can hold off,” he said on CNN, and “wait until a target is by himself or a facility is abandoned.”
“I’m a big advocate of drones,” Gates said.