WASHINGTON — Maine Sen. Angus King continued Friday to press for a review procedure for deciding when to use unmanned drone aircraft to target and kill U.S. citizens working with terrorists overseas.
The freshman senator appeared on two news programs Friday and is scheduled for two more Sunday as the debate continues on Capitol Hill over the Obama administration’s use of drones.
“It’s an effort to try to find a balance between constitutional and legal requirements and the necessity of the commander in chief being able to protect Americans,” King said in an interview Friday.
King, an independent, argued that while the president must be able to combat imminent threats without delay, pre-planned strikes on U.S. citizens involved in terrorist activities should be reviewed.
“By and large, as I understand it, these strikes don’t happen in a matter of minutes. They are planned over a matter of days and weeks,” King said Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program. “In the case of targeting an American, I don’t see why they can’t go to a secret court, like the intelligence court that has already been set up, and get what amounts to a warrant.”
King first raised his constitutional concerns Thursday during the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmation hearings for John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee for CIA director.
On Friday, he asked the committee’s leaders to work with him “to provide an appropriate check on the executive branch’s procedure for determining whether lethal force … against a U.S. citizen would be lawful.” One possible model, he said, is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, an 11-judge panel that reviews federal requests for wiretap warrants on foreign suspects operating in the United States.
By all accounts, the use of drone aircraft to kill U.S. citizens is rare.
Brennan on Thursday defended a drone strike on an American-born cleric working with al-Qaida in Yemen to plan attacks on U.S. targets. The American Civil Liberties Union has pointed to at least two additional incidents.
Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU, said Friday he was pleased to hear King raise the due process concerns during Brennan’s hearing. But Anders said it would be better to use the existing court system rather than set up a new one.
The ACLU filed suit to bring “targeted strike” cases to federal courts but the U.S. Department of Justice has resisted.
“The regular federal courts are already handling highly classified defense and national security cases, including very complex terrorism cases,” Anders said. “The courts we already have and have had for 200 years are perfectly suited to take on this role … it’s just a matter of getting the Obama administration to stop opposing their use.”
During his questioning of Brennan, King pointed out that the Fifth Amendment says American citizens cannot be deprived of the rights to life, liberty and property without due process.
“I understand that you can’t have co-commanders in chief, but having the executive be the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner all in one is very contrary to the traditions and the laws of this country, particularly in situations where there is time” for outside review, King said during Thursday’s hearing.
Brennan responded that the administration has been wrestling with those issues and is open to discussing how to balance the need for stopping terrorist attacks with protecting constitutional rights.
Brennan, currently the White House counter-terrorism chief, said decisions made on a battlefield or when fighting terrorism differ from court decisions on someone’s past offenses. Terrorists are targeted to prevent them from carrying out imminent attacks after solid intelligence reports suggest there is no other recourse, he said.
“That is an inherently executive branch function … the commander in chief has the responsibility to protect the welfare and the well-being of American citizens,” Brennan said.
King spokeswoman Crystal Canney said he is scheduled to appear on two shows Sunday: CNN’s “State of the Union” and Fox News’ “America’s News Headquarters.”
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