McCain eyes Pentagon budget to change counterterrorism rules

The Obama administration's aggressive counterterrorism campaign against top-level al Qaeda leaders, highlighted by the increased use of armed drones, has "far exceeded [the] charter" set by the Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF). 

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"We will have to revisit it . . . the whole issue" McCain told reporters on Tuesday, ahead of Senate Armed Services hearings on AUMF scheduled for Thursday. 

Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich) called the hearings days after the Boston bombings last April. 

“There’s a lot of questions, which are floating around that need to be at least addressed and thought about,” Levin told reporters at the time. “I expect we’re going to have a hearing on the subject in any event.”

Passed in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the AUMF gave military and intelligence agencies wide legal leeway to pursue al Qaeda. 

From the U.S. terror detainee program to armed drone strikes, the rules under AUMF have allowed American forces to kill most of the terror group's top tier leaders, including al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. 

But over a decade after the AUMF was approved by Congress, the war against al Qaeda and other Islamic militant factions across the globe has spiraled out of control, according to McCain. 

The rampant use of armed drones against suspected terrorists targets in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere has only fueled anti-American sentiment worldwide. 

Those attacks, along with the growth of the controversial terror detainee program, have largely overstepped the spirit of the AUMF, the Arizona Republican said. 

For his part, McCain said one option he is considering is introducing amendments to change AUMF as part of the FY '14 defense spending bill.

On the House side, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) introduced legislation requiring the White House to provide advance notice to defense lawmakers of any so-called "kill/capture" counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups. 

Thornberry, who heads up the House Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threats and intelligence, said his legislation will provide more transparency and Congress greater oversight on the secretive missions. 

McCain declined to go into details as to what those proposed amendments would include, in terms of updating the AUMF mandates, and if they would mimic those in Thornberry's bill. 

Those details, the Arizona Rpublican added, will likely come out during Thursday's hearing. 

McCain said he also planed to use the AUMF hearing to push for shifting of armed drone operations exclusively to Pentagon control. 

Currently, the Pentagon and CIA operate their own armed drone programs, geared toward eliminating senior al Qaeda leaders or other high-level terror targets around the world. 

Under a White House proposal issued in March, CIA would continue to supply targeting and other intelligence on possible targets, but operational control over the actual drone strikes would fall to the Pentagon. 

But lawmakers like Senate intelligence panel chief Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and others expressed concern that removing Pentagon control could distance the decision to authorize drone strikes from CIA intelligence and decision-making procedures.

But McCain said such concerns do not outweigh the problems posed by having the program split between the military and intelligence communities. 

That said, when asked if military leaders should hold sole control of armed drone strikes, McCain replied: "Absolutely"