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Senator Asks CIA Nominee Brennan when Drones can Kill Americans Suspected of being Terrorists

Alex Constantine - January 15, 2013

EDITORIAL: A question of lethal force

Wyden wants answers from Obama’s CIA nominee

January 15, 2013Sen. Ron Wyden has a simple, chilling question for John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency: When can a U.S. president target for death American citizens who are suspected of being terrorists?

Wyden sent a letter Monday to Brennan asking for the administration’s legal reasoning and guidelines for targeted killings of U.S. citizens who are suspected of terrorist activity — but who have not been convicted, of crimes, or even indicted.

The Obama administration has refused to make public its legal justifications and rules for such killings. Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is right to use upcoming Senate hearings on Brennan’s nomination as a wedge to break through the wall of secrecy surrounding the administration’s dubious claim to such extraordinary powers.

If anyone can answer Wyden’s question, it’s Brennan, who is the architect of what’s called the “Yemen model” for fighting counterterrorism. It’s a lethal mix of Special Forces raids and drone strikes targeting suspected al-Qaeda leaders, mostly on the Arabian Peninsula.

Wyden began pressing the administration for its legal rationale in such killings a year ago after the administration killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen reportedly linked to terrorist activities, in a drone attack in the mountains of Yemen. Another American, Samir Khan, also was killed in the attack, which incinerated the car in which the two were riding.

The administration should make public the legal underpinnings and rules for such killings so that, as Wyden says in his letter, “The American people can have full knowledge of how the executive branch understands the limits and boundaries of this authority.”

In his current capacity as the White House’s counterterrorism adviser, Brennan oversees what administration officials call the “disposition matrix,” which is used to target suspected terrorists, especially when they’re American citizens. As CIA director, Brennan presumably would have the authority, either independently or together with the president, to order such killings.

In his letter to Brennan, Wyden asks how much evidence the president needs to determine that a suspected American terrorist legally can be killed. “Does the president have to provide individual Americans with the opportunity to surrender before killing them?” he adds.

Wyden also wants to know how the administration determines that it is “not feasible” to capture American citizens suspected of terrorism and that lethal force is necessary. And he wants to know if the intelligence agencies can “carry out lethal operations inside the United States.”

Anyone feel a shiver running up their spine?

Finally, Wyden asked for a list of countries in which U.S. intelligence agencies have used their lethal counterterrorism powers — a disclosure that clearly is essential for congressional oversight.

After the attack on al-Awlaki, retired Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA director under George W. Bush, observed: “We needed a court order to eavesdrop on him (al-Awlaki), but we didn’t need a court order to kill him. Isn’t that something?”

Yes, it’s something — something that should be  explained fully to Congress and the American public.


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