When President Obama used his State of the Union address to affirm “we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts” to target terrorism suspects overseas, national security experts wondered exactly who on Capitol Hill got the scoop about secretive U.S. drone strikes.
Today, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who chairs the Intelligence Committee, filled in some of the details. Feinstein said in a written statement that her committee “receives notification with key details of each strike shortly after it occurs.” She said her committee holds regular briefings in which it reviews the drone attacks, examines how effective they are and verifies “the care taken to avoid deaths to non-combatants.” Feinstein added that staff members have held 35 monthly oversight meetings to review video footage and other records of the drone strikes. But all of those actions take place in closed sessions, far away from the public.
The Obama administration has been the subject of fierce criticism for the secrecy surrounding the program. Last week, after lawmakers threatened to hold up the president’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, the White House gave the House and Senate Intelligence Committees two classified legal memos that justify killing U.S. citizens who have gone to work with al Qaeda or its affiliates.
But Feinstein said Wednesday she still wants to see seven other legal opinions “that we believe to exist on targeted killings.” And Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, told NPR’s All Things Considered last week the administration couldn’t get away with a “just trust us” approach to drones.
The debate is more than an academic one. News reports have tied the American government to a September 2011 strike in Yemen that killed radical cleric and U.S. citizen Anwar al Awlaki. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights have sued top American officials over the attack, which they argue was carried out without due process under the law since no courts or outside authorities had checked the executive branch action.