Editorial: CIA nominee Brennan needs to justify drone campaign

Published: Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A
Last Modified: Friday, Feb. 8, 2013 - 12:09 am

The more Americans learn about the clandestine campaign of drone strikes against suspected terrorists, the more misgivings we should have.

Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee has a rare chance to pierce the shroud of secrecy when it holds a public confirmation hearing for John Brennan, President Barack Obama's nominee to be CIA director and a primary overseer of the drone war as Obama's counterterrorism adviser.

The committee, led by Dianne Feinstein of California, must make the best of this opportunity to get answers to some tough questions.

How high up in a terrorist group do you have to be to get on the "kill list?" What if the target is a U.S. citizen? Shouldn't there be some outside review so that administration officials aren't judge, jury and executioner?

How many civilian casualties have there been? How much risk to innocents – how much "collateral damage" – is acceptable?

While Brennan addressed some of these issues in written responses the Intelligence Committee released Wednesday, he kept to the vague and unsatisfying party line from the Obama national security team.

The rules for the drone campaign "continue to be refined and improved," he wrote. No, additional congressional approval is not required. Decisions on targeted killings are made "on a case-by-case basis" and follow "the law of war principles" of necessity, proportionality and humanity. While there have been civilians killed, he wrote, "It is exceedingly rare, and much, much rarer than many allege."

In today's hearing, committee members ought to press Brennan for more detail and more candor on drone strikes, as well as his views on torture, the CIA's mission and other issues.

Under Obama, killings by unmanned drones have become a bigger part of the war on terror. Since he took office, there have been about 300 strikes by the military and CIA. In 2011, a CIA drone killed radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the first American targeted for death.

On Monday, NBC News reported on a leaked Justice Department memo that revealed the Obama administration has much looser rules on when U.S. citizens can be targeted than previously acknowledged. The suspect doesn't have to be involved in a specific, imminent attack, only in ongoing plots against the United States. Civil liberties and human rights groups are right to raise alarms about that awfully broad justification.

The memo is a summary of a secret legal opinion that the administration said late Wednesday it plans to finally share with Congress.

On Wednesday, the New York Times had a detailed account of the drone war, and of disagreements within the administration. While some have pushed for more leeway to attack militants – lower-level fighters as well as "high-value" targets – Brennan has been a voice for restraint, the Times reported.

The story also recounted the fate of a cleric who denounced al-Qaida in his tiny Yemen village. He was the kind of leader that America needs to win hearts and minds in the war on terror, but he was killed in a strike targeting three militants who came to see him.

If the people in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries hit by drone strikes turn against America, doesn't that damage U.S. interests and national security in the long run?

That's another question that demands to be answered when Brennan testifies today.

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