Congress takes sides on drones

Some members of Congress call for more oversight, while others defend the program unconditionally

By Jillian Rayfield

Published February 11, 2013 6:19PM (EST)

A handful of senators like Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have long been calling for more information regarding the Obama administration's drone program. But now a number of others are joining the party, following the leak of a Department of Justice white paper that outlined how the White House can legally use drones to target U.S. citizens abroad. Though some lawmakers will only go so far as to call for more oversight, others are defending the program to the end. Here's how it breaks down so far:

More oversight: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., kicked off John Brennan's confirmation hearings with a promise to consider proposals to set up a special court that would decide when drones can target U.S. citizens overseas, noting that she'll review "legislation to ensure that drone strikes are carried out in a manner consistent with our values and the proposal to create an analogue of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to review the conduct of such strikes."

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, indicated that he supported that type of body. "It just makes me uncomfortable that the president, whoever it is, is the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner, all rolled into one," he said. "So I'm not suggesting something that would slow down response, but where there is time to go in and submit it to a third party that is a court, in confidence, and get a judgment that yes there is sufficient evidence here."

"A layer of judicial review could ensure additional checks on the designation of targeted individuals and determine whether sufficient evidence has been produced," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., during the confirmation hearings.

Other senators promised hearings regarding the legalities of the White House policy. "We are in a different kind of war," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "We're not sending troops, we're not sending manned bombers. We're dealing with the enemy where we find them to keep America safe. We're got to strike a new constitutional balance with the challenges we face today." Durbin notably would not take a position on the administration's current use of drones.

“It has to be in the agenda of this Congress to reconsider the scope of action of drones and use of deadly force by the United States around the world because the original authorization of use of force, I think, is being strained to its limits,” Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said in an interview with the AP recently.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also called for a review of the policies, saying that “it deserves a serious look at how we make the decisions in government to take out, kill, eliminate, whatever word you want to use, not just American citizens but other citizens as well.”

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Yahoo! News in a recent interview that it's "got to be offensive to American values" that the White House allows Brennan to go "to work every day in a windowless room and decides who he’s going to execute that day.” He added: “I think it would be very helpful to the administration, and to the American people, but certainly the world, for us to develop a policy that’s a lot different" than that.

Former defense secretary and former CIA chief Robert Gates agreed that "some check" on the president's power to order drone strikes on American citizens is necessary. "I think that the rules and the practices that the Obama administration has followed are quite stringent and are not being abused. But who is to say about a future president?"

“We are sort of running on the steam that we acquired right after our country was attacked in the most horrific act of terror in U.S. history,” said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. “We have learned much since 9/11, and now it’s time to take a more sober look at where we should be with use of force.”

And Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who in June introduced a bill to prevent the use of surveillance drones domestically, called it "unseemly that a politician gets to decide the death of an American citizen," the AP reports. "They should answer about the 16-year-old boy, al-Awlaki's son who was killed not as collateral damage, but in a separate strike."

Unconditional Defenders: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., called the use of drones “a lawful act of national self-defense" in an initial statement last week, and argued on Sunday that the program already has enough oversight. “Monthly I have my committee go to the CIA to review them. I as chairman review every single airstrike we use in the war on terror, both on the civilian and the military side when it comes to terrorist strikes,” he said. "There’s plenty of oversight here."

During a press conference on Feb. 6, House Speaker John Boehner agreed with Rogers' initial statement that the use of drones is legal and necessary. "That's all," Boehner said.

“The process of being targeted I think is legal, quite frankly laborious and should reside in the commander in chief to determine who an enemy combatant is and what kind of force to use,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who went so far as to call the drone program one of the "highlights" of Obama's presidency so far.

"If you take up arms against America and you fight in a terrorist training camp or on the front lines in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Yemen, you shouldn't be surprised if America reaches out and exacts justice against you," said Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., dismissed the "liberal hand-wringing" over the program. “I fully support targeted operations that have been carried out,” he said in a recent appearance on MSNBC. “I think the president has done the right thing.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said an oversight panel would be "an encroachment on the powers of the president of the United States." He added that he does take issue with the program being in "the hands of the Central Intelligence Agency," when it should reside within the Department of Defense. "Since when is the intelligence agency supposed to be an air force of drones that goes around killing people? I believe that it's a job for the Department of Defense."

And then, of course, there's the Fox News contingent. Rupert Murdoch tweeted:

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And Fox & Friends was outraged that Obama supports the use of drones but not waterboarding. “We’ve gone from capturing [al-Qaida militants] and possibly getting information from them about other terrorists and bringing them to Gitmo, to killing them with drone strikes. Why? Because the president doesn’t want to do some of those enhanced interrogation techniques,” said Gretchen Carlson.

“The hypocrisy, though, is jaw-dropping,” Steve Doocy asserted. “Where are the calls for this president to be impeached as George Bush was called to be impeached five years ago.”

Jillian Rayfield

Jillian Rayfield is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on politics. Follow her on Twitter at @jillrayfield or email her at

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Barack Obama Department Of Justice Dianne Feinstein Drones John Brennan John Mccain Ron Wyden