WASHINGTON — Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he finds merit in “some check” on a president's ability to order drone strikes against American al-Qaida suspects overseas, lending support to creating a special court that would review such requests.
“I think that the rules and the practices that the Obama administration has followed are quite stringent and are not being abused. But who is to say about a future president?” said Gates, Pentagon chief for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The potential model that some lawmakers are considering for overseeing such drone attacks is a secret court of federal judges who now review requests for government surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases.
“Something that would give the American people confidence that there was, in fact, a compelling case ... to launch an attack against an American citizen, I think just as an independent confirmation or affirmation, if you will, is something worth giving serious consideration to,” Gates told CNN's “State of the Union” in an interview broadcast today.
The issue gained momentum in the run-up to the confirmation hearing last week for John Brennan, Obama's top counterterrorism adviser who helped managed the drone program, to be CIA director. Before the hearing, Obama directed the Justice Department to give the congressional intelligence committees access to classified legal advice providing the government's rationale for drone strikes against American citizens working with al-Qaida abroad.
Demands for such information grew after the leak early last week of an unclassified memo on how decisions are made to target U.S. citizens abroad. The memo says it is legal for the government to kill U.S. citizens abroad if it believes they are senior al-Qaida leaders continually engaged in operations aimed at killing Americans, even if there is no evidence of a specific imminent attack.
The leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said she intended to review proposals for “legislation to ensure that drone strikes are carried out in a manner consistent with our values” and she suggested something similar to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That special court reviews requests on government surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases.
Gates said that “this idea of being able to execute, in effect, an American citizen, no matter how awful, having some third party having a say in it or perhaps ... informing the Congress or the intelligence committees or something like that, I just think some check on the ability of the president to do this has merit, as we look to the longer term future.”
A September 2011 drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens. A drone strike two weeks later killed al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son, a Denver native.
The strikes came after U.S. intelligence concluded that the elder al-Awlaki was senior operational leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula plotting attacks on the U.S., including the abortive Christmas Day bombing of an airplane landing in Detroit in 2009.
In Thursday's hearing, Brennan defended drone strikes as necessary, saying they are taken only as a “last resort,” but he said he had no qualms about going after Anwar al-Awlaki.
He said the White House had considered the concept of the special courts, and he said he would be open to discussing it because “American citizens by definition are due much greater due process than anybody else by dint of their citizenship.”