WASHINGTON (CBS/AP) – In a letter to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that President Obama does have the personal authority to use lethal force against American citizens on U.S. soil.
As Mother Jones reports, the Republican Kentucky senator received the letter after threatening to block Obama’s nominee to head the CIA – John Brennan – “until [Obama] answers the question of whether or not the President can kill American citizens through the drone strike program on U.S. soil.” Holder wrote that such an action would only be conducted in “an extraordinary circumstance.”
This is in contrast to Brennan’s comments last Tuesday, in which he told Sen. Paul, “the agency I have been nominated to lead does not conduct lethal operations inside the United States – nor does it have any authority to do so.”
Brennan then deferred an official response to Sen. Paul’s drone question over to Attorney General Holder and the Justice Department – who were not in agreement with Obama’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.
Obama’s stance toward the terrorist threats facing the United States has left some Democrats and Republicans alike nervous about the unmanned drones targeting the nation’s enemies from the skies. Questions about the deadly program dogged Obama’s pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency last week and prompted lawmakers to consider tighter oversight.
All killings carried out under the drone program have ballooned under the president’s watch.
“We are in a different kind of war. We’re not sending troops. We’re not sending manned bombers. We’re dealing with the enemy where we find them to keep America safe. We have to strike a new constitutional balance with the challenges we face today,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Before Brennan’s confirmation hearing to lead the CIA in February, 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.
That 2012 memo outlined the Obama administration’s decision to kill al-Qaida suspects without evidence that specific and imminent plots were being planned against the United States.
The nomination of Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser who oversaw many of the drone strikes from his office in the West Wing basement, kick-started the discussion about how the United States prosecutes its fight against the terrorist group.
Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, himself a former CIA chief, suggested “some check” on a president’s ability to order drone strikes against American al-Qaida operatives would be appropriate and lent 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 Obama.
The potential model that some lawmakers are considering for overseeing such drone attacks is a secret court of federal judges that now reviews requests for government surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases. In those proceedings, 11 federal judges review wiretap applications that enable the FBI and other agencies to gather evidence to build cases.
Suspects have no lawyers present, as they would in other U.S. courts, and the proceedings are secret.
“I think it’s very unseemly that a politician gets to decide the death of an American citizen,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. “They should answer about the 16-year-old boy, al-Awlaki’s son who was killed not as collateral damage, but in a separate strike.”
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