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Lawmakers Debate Oversight of Drone Strikes

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, offered new details Sunday about his ideas for creating a special court to oversee drone strikes against U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, which has gained momentum as senators consider John O. Brennan’s nomination to run the CIA.

King, a freshman on the Intelligence Committee, said his proposal would not prevent intelligence agents from targeting people suspected of carrying out imminent attacks, which has been a main focus of criticism from skeptics of the idea. “I think that misunderstands what the circumstances are,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” If there’s a need for an immediate strike, “that’s a commander in chief job. I’m certainly not questioning that,” King said. But he said his understanding is that will not routinely be the case because “often these strikes are planned weeks in advance.”

On the same program, President Barack Obama’s first Defense secretary, Robert Gates, said the idea of applying “some check” on a president’s power to order drone strikes is worth “serious consideration.” He added: “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?”

Congressional interest in creating a special court — along the lines of the secret panel of federal judges that reviews requests for surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases — grew last week in part because of the confirmation hearing for Brennan, who helped managed the drone program as the president’s top counterterrorism adviser; in advance of the hearing, Obama told the Justice Department to give the two Intelligence committees the access they had been seeking to the classified legal rationale for drone strikes against American citizens assisting al-Qaida overseas.

Brennan said at his hearing that the administration had considered the court idea and rejected it but was willing to revisit the concept because “American citizens by definition are due much greater due process than anybody else by dint of their citizenship.” The next day, King asked the leaders of Senate Intelligence to include creation of such a court in their fiscal 2014 intelligence authorization bill. Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she would review legislative proposals on drone strikes similar to what King has proposed.

House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said the administration has been forthcoming enough with Congress for lawmakers to have sufficient information to monitor the drone strikes. “There is plenty of oversight here,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

He also defended the practice of targeting U.S. citizens who have joined forces with al-Qaida, while noting that there has been “sensationalism” in the notion that there was a “kill list” of Americans. “If you join forces with the enemy, there’s a long-standing tradition, that in and of itself — you lose your constitutional protections,” Rogers said.

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