In my column today, I note that John Brennan, the counterterrorism adviser President Obama has picked to run the CIA, conspicuously declined to say at his confirmation hearing last week whether his boss has the power to order hits on suspected terrorists within the United States. While the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee let that slide, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) says he won't, threatening to block Brennan's nomination until he gets a clear answer:
I have asked Mr. Brennan if he believed that the President has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, and my question remains unanswered. I will not allow a vote on this nomination until Mr. Brennan openly responds to the questions and concerns my colleagues and I share.
Would you agree that it is paradoxical that the federal government would need to go before a judge to authorize a wiretap on a U.S. citizen overseas, but possibly not to order a lethal drone strike against the same individual? If not, please explain why you believe something similar to the FISA standard should not be applied in regards to lethal actions against U.S. citizens….
How many U.S. citizens have been intentionally killed by U.S. drone strikes since 2008? How many have been unintentionally killed by U.S. drone strikes during the same period?…
You have indicated that no "credible evidence" exists to support recent claims of civilian casualties resulting from U.S. drone strikes. Please indicate how you define "credible evidence" and what process is in place to evaluate the legitimacy of alleged civilian casualties….
Do you condone the CIA's practice of counting certain civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes as 'militants,' simply because they were of military age and within close proximity of a target?…
Do you believe that lethal drone strikes constitute "hostilities" as defined by the War Powers Act? On what legal basis does the administration derive authorization to conduct such strikes?…
Do you believe that the president has the power to authorize lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil? What about the use of lethal force against a non-U.S. person on U.S. soil?
As Paul's questions reflect, the Obama administration still has not provided basic facts about its "targeted killing" program, including a complete list of the countries where it operates. When Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) noted at Brennan's confirmation hearing that the nominee had not answered that question, Brennan promised that "if I were to be confirmed as director of CIA, I would get back to you." When Wyden asked how much evidence is needed to justify a presidential death warrant and whether targets on U.S. soil are fair game, Brennan's response was a marvel of misdirection and self-contradiction:
I have been a strong proponent of trying to be as open as possible with these programs as far as our explaining what we're doing.
What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues, but at the same time optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security. I don't think that it's one or the other. It's trying to optimize both of them.
Toward the end of the hearing, Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) told Brennan, "I've been through a whole lot of confirmation hearings in 28 years here," and "I quite honestly do not recall anybody who was more forthright, more direct, more accommodating." Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the committee and spent much of her question time testifying about how careful and discriminating the president is in deciding who should die, agreed with Rockefeller.
You can watch Paul's response to last night's State of the Union address, during which Paul declared that "we will not tolerate secret lists of American citizens who can be killed without trial," here.