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Drone strikes

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Senate confirmations hearings on the nomination of John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency have revived the national debate over the use of drones to kill terrorists.

President Obama has considerably expanded the use of unmanned craft to kill terrorists beyond the reach of conventional forces in neighboring Pakistan and most recently in two drone attacks in Yemen without oversight. The attacks, however, have been strongly criticized for violating national sovereignty, but also for targeting U.S. citizens, among them American-turned-terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, who plotted his attacks from Yemen. Killed in 2011, he has been linked to at least three attacks planned or carried out on American soil since 2009.

President Obama has ordered more than 360 strikes compared to fewer than 50 under President Bush.

The day before Mr. Brennan’s Senate appearance, the White House provided congressional Intelligence Committees access to the legal justification for targeted killings, particularly against American citizens abroad who are considered terrorists. Opponents of the practice, such as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, say it violates the constitutional rights of Americans to due process.

“The deliberate killing of a United States citizen pursuant to a targeted operation authorized or aided by our government raises significant constitutional and legal concerns,” he said in a joint statement with Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the committee’s ranking Republican.

Defenders counter that the American citizen has joined a terrorist organization on foreign soil and is plotting acts of war against the United States. It is not about killing Americans on U.S. streets, where they can be apprehended and subjected to judicial proceedings.

Citizenship, though, is but one issue on the use of drones by the CIA and military that have killed an estimated 3,000 suspected militants and terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in the past four years. They have also killed dozens of civilians, including women and children.

Congressional opponents want greater oversight and accountability in the president’s decisions determining who or what groups might be targeted.

To do so, lawmakers such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein are proposing a special court to independently review presidential drone decisions. Mr. Brennan sounded willing to pursue the idea, which also gained support from former Defense secretary Robert Gates.

As a precedent, proponents point to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court that serves as a check on the use of secret wiretaps or other surveillance techniques by the National Security Agency or Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Such a court would inject the judiciary into matters of war and possibly infringe on the president’s role as commander in chief. A court might review secret procedures and policies used in determining who or what organizations are on an approved list of targets.

However, accommodations must also be made to allow drone use that might require decisions that cannot be delayed waiting for a court review.

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