Last month, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence gave John Brennan, the new CIA director, another opportunity to answer a question he had dodged at his confirmation hearing: "Could the administration carry out drone strikes inside the United States?" Brennan's written response: "This administration has not carried out drone strikes inside the United States and has no intention of doing so."
When asked how far President Obama is legally allowed to go in marking suspected terrorists for death, his administration has responded, again and again, with a description of what he so far has chosen to do. It is this kind of maddening evasiveness that provoked the inspiring, attention-grabbing filibuster that Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., staged last week, refusing to let Brennan's confirmation proceed until the Obama administration deigned to address his questions about the president's license to kill.
Although Paul declared "victory" and pronounced himself "quite happy" with the response he got from Attorney General Eric Holder last Thursday, very little was clarified. Here is the question that Holder chose to address in his March 7 letter to Paul: "Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?" Holder said, "The answer to that question is no."
That sounds straightforward, unless you realize that, according to the Obama administration, the people it identifies as members or allies of al-Qaida (including "financiers") are engaged in combat even when they are driving down the street or sitting in their homes, far from any active battlefield. The administration does not acknowledge any geographic limits on the president's purported authority to issue death warrants.
Although the Justice Department's leaked white paper about targeted killings focuses on people who pose an "imminent threat," it defines that term so broadly that pretty much any alleged terrorist would qualify. In any case, the white paper emphasizes that the criteria it discusses are sufficient to order someone's death but may not be necessary.
Hence all the questions about killing suspected terrorists inside the United States even when they do not pose an immediate threat of violence. The administration's slippery responses to those questions have only reinforced the suspicion that Obama is trying to keep all his options open.