White House Agrees to Release Memo on Targeted Killings by Drone

Patrick Goodenough | February 7, 2013 | 4:48am EST
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John Brennan, Obama’s nominee for CIA director, is regarded as architect of the policy of expanded use of unmanned drone-launched missile strikes against terror suspects. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – On the eve of a Senate confirmation hearing for CIA director nominee John Brennan, the White House said late Wednesday it would provide Congress with a classified legal document relating to the use of lethal force against American terrorists abroad.

The Associated Press quoted an unidentified senior administration official as saying that President Obama, as part of his “commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters,” had directed the Justice Department to provide the Senate and House intelligence committees access to the document.

Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, is regarded as architect of the policy of expanded use of unmanned drone-launched missile strikes against terror suspects – a policy that has sparked growing concern on Capitol Hill.

In written submissions to the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he will appear on Thursday, Brennan said the strikes were carried out “in full compliance with the law” and used “against specific al-Qaeda terrorists in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives.”

Eleven senators, Republicans and Democrats, earlier this week urged Obama to release classified Justice Department documentation relating to when drone strikes and other counter-terror operations can be used to kill American citizens abroad.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Wednesday he was “really troubled” over the issue.

“I’m concerned about a bunch of people from the executive branch sitting around at a table with flashcards saying, ‘Do you want to kill him, what do you think? Should we kill him, what do you think?’”

Paul contended that Americans who embrace terrorism and turn against their country should be tried for treason, irrespective if they are available to stand trial.

“I would make it a pretty quick trial, but I would have some judge reviewing this, whether it’s a FISA court, or some kind of judge – if it has to be secret it could be FISA – but ideally if you’re a traitor let’s try you for treason. If you’re not going to show up, try, and there will likely be a conviction,” he said.

“I don’t think that killing someone without any judicial oversight is an appropriate activity for the president.”

(FISA – Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – courts are federal intelligence courts, held in secret, dealing with warrants for government surveillance in terrorism or espionage cases.)

‘War crimes’

Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric who became a top al-Qaeda propagandist was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

The stepped-up use under the Obama administration of missile-armed drones against terrorists – mostly along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but also in Yemen and Somalia – has stoked international controversy, with United Nations human rights experts becoming increasingly critical of the practice.

Last June the U.N.’s “special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings,” Christof Heyns, told a conference in Geneva that the targeted killings may even constitute “war crimes.”

Brennan has in the past given a fairly detained account of the drone program, dedicating much of a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center last April to the subject.

He argued that the use of drones to target terrorists was both legal and ethical.

Radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, seen here in an October 2008 file photo, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.  Among other things, U.S. intelligence officials accused him of having a “direct operational role” in a failed attempt to bomb a Detroit-bound passenger plane on Christmas Day 2009. (AP File Photo/Muhammad ud-Deen)

“Targeted strikes conform to the principle of necessity, the requirement that the target have definite military value,” Brennan said. “ In this armed conflict, individuals who are part of al-Qaeda or its associated forces are legitimate military targets. We have the authority to target them with lethal force just as we target enemy leaders in past conflicts, such as Germans and Japanese commanders during World War II.”

Further, Brennan said targeted killing by drone was also “a wise choice,” citing factors including remote terrain, precision, fast deployment and the reduction of risk to U.S. personnel and to innocent civilians.

He acknowledged that there were times when civilians had been “accidentally injured, or worse, killed in these strikes.”

“It is exceedingly rare, but it has happened.  When it does, it pains us, and we regret it deeply, as we do any time innocents are killed in war,” Brennan said. “And when it happens we take it very, very seriously.  We go back and we review our actions. We examine our practices.  And we constantly work to improve and refine our efforts so that we are doing everything in our power to prevent the loss of innocent life.”

Hours before the announcement that the administration would make the legal material available to lawmakers, White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Obama was committed to providing more information to Congress.

“He thinks that it is legitimate to ask questions about how we prosecute the war against al-Qaeda,” he said. “These are questions that will be with us long after he is president and long after the people who are in the seats that they're in now have left the scene.”

Carney said Obama’s “high responsibility here as commander-in-chief is to protect the American people and to protect the United States from threats like the threats posed by al-Qaeda.

“It is also his high responsibility to perform that function in a way that is consistent with who we are, our values and the constitution.”

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