Congress Considers Limiting President’s Drone Authority

A group of 11 senators demand release of legal documents justifying targeted killings of US citizens

by John Glaser, February 05, 2013

A small but growing opposition in Congress to the Obama administration’s targeted killing policies is beginning to demand hearings and accountability, after a leaked legal memo this week revealed the President’s rationale for assassinating US citizens.

“It has to be in the agenda of this Congress to reconsider the scope of action of drones and use of deadly force by the United States around the world because the original authorization of use of force, I think, is being strained to its limits,” said Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat.

According to congressional aides the Senate Foreign Relations Committee likely will hold hearings on US drone policy in the near future.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said Tuesday that “it deserves a serious look at how we make the decisions in government to take out, kill, eliminate, whatever word you want to use, not just American citizens but other citizens as well.”

A bipartisan group of 11 senators wrote a letter to President Obama requesting he provide his administration’s official legal memos justifying the use of armed drones to kill American citizens without due process.

The request was issued on Monday, the same day that NBC News published an exclusive story based on a leaked Department of Justice “white paper” that was provided to Senate committees months ago.

The memo, while not the official documents the senators have repeatedly requested, laid out the government’s case for targeted assassinations of US citizens accused of being terrorists even when there is no active intelligence accusing them of carrying out a specific terrorist attack.

“We ask that you direct the Justice Department to provide Congress, specifically the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, with any and all legal opinions that lay out the executive branch’s official understanding of the President’s authority to deliberately kill American citizens,” the eight Democrats and three Republicans wrote.

“We should be concerned when the White House is acting as judge, jury and executioner,” Naureen Shah, a lecturer at Columbia Law School said. “And there’s no one outside of the White House who has real oversight over that process. What’s put forward here is there’s no role for the courts, not even after the fact.”

“Anyone should be concerned when the president and his lawyers make up their own interpretation of the law or their own rules,” Mary Ellen O’Connell, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and an authority on international law and the use of force told NBC News.

“This is a very, very dangerous thing that the president has done,” she added.

The senators even suggested that they would hold up the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan if the President does not comply.

“The executive branch’s cooperation on this matter will help avoid an unnecessary confrontation that could affect the Senate’s consideration of nominees for national security positions,” they warned.

As Marcy Wheeler points out, this is at least the 12th time this group of senators has requested the Obama administration’s legal documents on this matter. All have been met with stiff rejection.

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