Last week John Brennan testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee as President Obama’s nominee for CIA director and was repeatedly questioned about the White House’s use of drone strikes. Brennan’s testimony and a policy memo recently obtained by NBC News highlight how unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are an increasingly important, if not controversial, weapon of war for the White House.
Brennan, who has been central in counterterror operations using drones, took criticism from both sides of the aisle during his testimony. Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss questioned the Obama Administration’s use of drone strikes over capturing terrorist suspects and asked why only one high value al-Qaeda target has been detained since Obama became president. California Senator Dianne Feinstein challenged Brennan about the killing of Americans abroad in U.S. drone strikes, asking how such behavior could be justified.
Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination to be the Director of the CIA, on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 7, 2013. (Photo: Reuters/Jason Reed)
Earlier in the month, the Intelligence Committee received a Justice Department white paper outlining the legal basis for the use of drones. The memo states lethal force can be used against combatants who pose an “imminent threat.” The trouble is the Justice Department’s relatively loose definition of the phrase as an “‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack…will take place in the immediate future.” Rather the memo states such a threat could be anyone “recently” involved in “activities” posing a threat of a violent attack and “there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities.” The U.S. government can also order the killing of “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda linked groups, even if they are American citizens. How one defines ‘senior’ among increasingly amorphous terrorists groups is equally ambiguous.
Many questions remain about the Obama administration’s use of drones in the Middle East and in Pakistan, especially against American citizens. How effective are drones at keeping the American people safe? How should other branches of government oversee the use of drones in line with America’s national interest? The debate has just begun and it will be an important national conversation.