The Buzz

Drones and Congressional Power (II)

Last week, The Buzz highlighted a new report by Micah Zenko on drone strikes, which argues for reforms in U.S. policies concerning targeted killings overseas. Among the points Zenko makes is that the drone war that the Obama administration is conducting is proceeding with limited to no oversight from Congress. As he notes, “Despite nearly ten years of nonbattlefield targeted killings, no congressional committee has conducted a hearing on any aspect of them.”

This subject is particularly timely. The beginning of 2013 saw a noticeable uptick in the frequency of drone strikes, with the United States conducting seven strikes in Pakistan over the first ten days of the year (compared to an average of about one per week in 2012). During this time, President Obama also nominated John Brennan, his chief counterterrorism adviser and the principal architect of the U.S. drone program, to serve as the next director of the CIA. Brennan’s nomination and confirmation hearings, therefore, should serve as an opportunity for senators to assert their role in overseeing the drone program and ask serious questions about where U.S. drone policy is going in the next four years.

A welcome step in this direction came today from Senator Ron Wyden, who serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In a letter to Brennan, Wyden requests answers on a whole range of issues related to targeted killings. Chief among them is the important question of under what conditions the U.S. government has the legal authority to kill American citizens. Wyden notes that “senior intelligence officials have said publicly that they have the authority to knowingly use lethal force against Americans.” However, this authority is justified by “secret legal opinions issued by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel,” which Wyden says he has asked to see repeatedly but has been so far denied. In response to the lack of concrete answers, Wyden makes the crucial point:

This situation is unacceptable. For the executive branch to claim that intelligence agencies have the authority to knowingly kill American citizens but refuse to provide Congress with any and all legal opinions that explain the executive branch’s understanding of this authority represents an alarming and indefensible assertion of executive prerogative.

Wyden’s letter is worth reading in full, but one other aspect of it is especially noteworthy. On the second page there is this rather amazing statement:

My staff and I have been asking for over a year for the complete list of countries in which the intelligence community has used its lethal counterterrorism authorities. To my surprise and dismay, the intelligence community has declined to provide me with the complete list.

What a quaint notion: the idea that the American people—or, at the very least, their elected representatives on the relevant congressional committees—have a right to know in which countries their government has killed people overseas. The fact that Wyden (not to mention the rest of us) has been refused this information so far is a scandal. We can only hope that as Brennan’s confirmation process proceeds and as the second Obama term unfolds, other members of Congress will join him in taking their oversight role seriously and demanding answers to these types of questions.