Sen. Susan Collins was the lone Republican standout when it came to drone policy questions at yesterday's hearing, and some defense analysts tell Townhall that the targeted killings program, even when U.S. citizens are on Obama's "kill list," has been and can continue to be an important weapon in the war on terror.
Marc Thiessen, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and Washington Post columnist, says the targeted killings program is "absolutely" defensible. "They probably bend over too much to find justifications in international law. The president has inherent authority as commander in chief to conduct military operations in the war on terror... There is more than enough justification for the drone campaign."
Brennan has come under fire this week from both left and right for his role in the program. He's been referred to as the "drone czar" and been the public face of a policy that is still mostly classified. NBC News published a Department of Justice memo this week detailing the decisionmaking process and broad legal authority that President Obama claims in operating the program.
"We do not view this as one giant law enforcement operation," says Ben Lerner, a Vice President at the Center for Security Policy. "Al-Qaida has American citizens in its ranks. A small number, to be sure, but they are there nonetheless... U.S. citizenship doesn't immunize the consequences of joining an enemy army in a time of war and taking up arms against your own country. The three criteria laid out in the Department of Justice memo seem reasonable."
Those three criteria are:
(1). an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States;
(2). capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible;
(3). the operation is conducted in a manner consistent with the four fundamental principles of the laws of war governing the use of force.
To date, three Americans have been known to have been killed in the drone program: Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens, were killed in a drone stroke in Yemen in September 2011. Al-Awlaki's son, 16-year-old U.S. citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen two weeks prior to his father in a separate strike. While the U.S. publicly claimed credit for the strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Khan, the Obama Administration has been reticent to even acknowledge Abdulrahman al-Awlaki's death. This seemed in conflict with Brennan's statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence yesterday that when mistakes are made, "we need to acknowledge it and we need to acknowledge it publicly."
The process by which drone targets are selected hasn't been without scrutiny. "I would be happy if there was more transparency," says Steven Bucci, Director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation. "There's no reason not to be more transparent. I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not gonna sit and parse exactly what they should release and what they shouldn't." Still, Bucci says, "I don't have any problem and neither does Heritage with the policy and the program that's been run. We think it's kind of settled legal ground from the previous administration."
Consolidating the drone judgment power in the White House might prove troublesome. In the Bush Administration, Democratic lawmakers hammered the political point that they weren't briefed thoroughly enough on some controversial war on terror measures, Thiessen says. "One of the big mistakes we made in the interrogation program in the Bush Administration was we didn't brief it widely enough. Because quite frankly, we need to get people briefed and on the record." That way, Thiessen says, if "political winds shift," politicians can't use their ignorance of a program as a cudgel to attack their political foes.
"Were we so discriminating in World War II with American citizens fighting for Nazi Germany?" asks Bill Roggio, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of The Long War Journal. Roggio doesn't think that the due process objections to targeted killings of U.S. citizens holds water. "To me, common sense dictates that they're a threat to the United States. And we're at war with al-Qaida. If you want to approach this from a police action standpoint, then yeah, that argument makes sense. But I don't believe that's a reasonable approach to dealing with the problem."
It's Brennan's overall approach to national security and the War on Terror that conservatives have so far taken exception to. Idaho Sen. James Risch noted that the CIA in the Brennan years has suffered from both leaks and a casual attitude towards national security secrets that may have harmed American interests abroad - particularly in one case last year that may have compromised agents abroad.
"I think he's going to be a very poor CIA director, and I'd love to see him not get confirmed," Bucci says. "He's too political, he's too ham-handed... and he apparently likes to talk. That's not a good thing in a CIA director."
Furthermore, as the architect of the drone program, Brennan's the face of a program that might have been oversold to the American people. The drone program is high-profile and attracts a lot of media attention, but the Obama Administration has relied on its use extensively while neglecting other parts of valuable counter-terrorism strategy.
"[Brennan's] underestimation of al-Qaida is really where my opposition lies," Roggio says. "The drones don't deal with they key issues: state sponsorship of terrorism, terrorists' ability to exploit ungoverned spaces, and radical ideology. So the drones, while they look good, and while I think they're required, are not the solution. And that's how he's selling it."