Thursday, April 17, 2014
By LESLEY CLARK and JONATHAN S. LANDAY/McClatchy Washington Bureau
President Obama on Thursday defended his administration's use of drone strikes to kill terrorists as effective, lawful and "heavily constrained," but he also appeared to be laying groundwork for an expansion of the controversial targeted killings.
President Obama speaks at the National Defense University in Washington on Thursday. Obama gave a robust defense of the U.S. drone program.
Two Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton drones are seen on the tarmac at a Northrop Grumman test facility in Palmdale, Calif., on Wednesday.
Maine senators back having oversight for drone program
By KEVIN MILLER/Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON - Maine's two U.S. senators said Thursday they supported greater oversight of drones when used to target and kill U.S. citizens.
President Obama said he was open to discussions with Congress about enhancing oversight of drone strikes, including during the relatively rare instances when U.S. citizens are targeted for working at high levels within overseas terrorist groups.
"I was pleased that the president talked about having additional checks," Sen. Angus King said. "It just so happens that (Sen.) Marco Rubio and I presented him with such a solution this morning," he added with a laugh.
Both King and Sen. Susan Collins serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which oversees the nation's clandestine information-gathering network. Collins predicted the president's speech will receive considerable scrutiny from the committee.
"I continue to believe that we require a new legal framework to govern the use of drones for targeted killings overseas of American citizens ... and that no president should have unreviewable authority to order such strikes," Collins, a Republican, said. One option, she said, was a special court to review such planned attacks.
Earlier Thursday, King introduced a bill with Rubio -- a Florida Republican -- that would create an independent "red team" to analyze data supporting targeted strikes against U.S. citizens. The team would be created by the Director of National Intelligence and would be led by someone outside of the intelligence agencies. The team would report to intelligence agencies within 15 days and that analysis as well as details about the targeted individual would be provided to congressional intelligence agencies prior to a strike.
King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, said he discussed his bill briefly with CIA Director John Brennan on Thursday following a Senate Intelligence Committee meeting. During Brennan's nomination hearings in February, King had raised concerns about the constitutionality of the executive branch acting as "the judge, the jury and the executioner" without oversight.
"This does not apply to decisions where we are in hot pursuit (of a threat) or to battlefield decisions," King said of his bill. "Most of these decisions are made over a matter of months."
As the former top-ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Collins had helped lead dozens of hearings on the threat posed by both foreign and "homegrown Islamist extremists." While the president pointed toward the Boston Marathon bombing as an indication of that threat, Collins criticized the administration for not being more outspoken on the issue.
"The threat of homegrown terrorism has grown during the last decade, and the Administration has repeatedly been reluctant to acknowledge that threat," Collins said."
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U.S. DRONE STRIKES, KILLINGS ON THE RISE
The official U.S. figures of number of strikes and estimated deaths remain classified.
But, according to the New America Foundation which maintains a database of the strikes, the CIA and the military have carried out an estimated 416 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, resulting in 3,364 estimated deaths, including militants and civilians. The Associated Press also has reported a drone strike in Somalia in 2012 that killed one.
The think tank compiles its numbers by combining reports in major news media that rely on local officials and eyewitness accounts.
Strikes in Pakistan spiked in 2010 under Obama to 122. But the number has dropped to 12 so far this year. Strikes were originally carried out with permission of the Pakistani government of Pervez Musharraf, though subsequent Pakistani governments have demanded strikes cease. Most of those killed by the strikes in Pakistan are militants, according to the New America Foundation database.
The CIA and the military have carried out some 69 strikes in Yemen, with the Yemeni government's permission.
-- The Associated Press
In remarks at the National Defense University in Washington, Obama cast the use of such operations as a necessary part of an overall national defense strategy, even as he acknowledged targeted killings risk "creating new enemies" and could "lead a president and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism."
He said the U.S. is at a crossroads of national security issues with a diffuse array of terrorist threats that require a recasting of a war on terror.
"Neither I, nor any president, can promise the total defeat of terror," Obama said, contending that the threat of large-scale attacks like the Sept. 11 2001, terrorist attacks has faded as al-Qaida has been weakened, but that threats like the Boston Marathon bombing and attacks in Benghazi remain. "What we can do - what we must do - is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend."
As part of that, he renewed a first term campaign promise to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, announcing that he'd lift a ban on detainee transfers to Yemen - homeland of half of the 166 captives at the detention facility.
The speech served to counter critics who say the drone program has been bathed in secrecy, as Obama offered more details on when the U.S. will deploy drone strikes.
But Obama's speech appeared to expand those who are targeted in drone strikes and other undisclosed "lethal actions" in apparent anticipation of an overhaul of the 2001 congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against al-Qaida and allied groups that supported the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
In every previous speech, interview and congressional testimony, Obama and his top aides have said that drone strikes are restricted to killing confirmed "senior operational leaders of al-Qaida and associated forces" plotting imminent violent attacks against the United States.
But Obama dropped that wording Thursday, making no reference at all to senior operational leaders. While saying that the United States is at war with al-Qaida and its associated forces, he used a variety of descriptions of potential targets, from "those who want to kill us" and "terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat" to "all potential terrorist targets."
The previous wording also was absent from a fact sheet distributed by the White House. Targeted killings outside of "areas of active hostilities," it said, could be used against "a senior operational leader of a terrorist organization or the forces that organization is using or intends to use to conduct terrorist attacks."
The preconditions for targeted killings set out by Obama and the fact sheet appear to correspond to the findings of a McClatchy review published in April of U.S. intelligence reports that showed the CIA killed hundreds of lower-level suspected Afghan, Pakistani and unidentified "other" militants in scores of drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal are during the height of the operations in 2010-11.
Nearly 4,000 people are estimated to have died in U.S. drone strikes since 2004, the vast majority if them conducted by the CIA in Pakistan's tribal area bordering Afghanistan.
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