Policy & Strategy

Sens. Feinstein, Leahy push for court oversight of armed drone strikes

The top Democrats on the Senate intelligence and judiciary
panels are planning hearings to consider establishing new authorities for
federal courts to oversee the use of armed drone strikes against suspected
terror targets worldwide.

{mosads}That authority would likely be patterned after the
intelligence oversight responsibilities under the Foreign Intelligence and
Surveillance Act (FISA), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the Senate Intelligence
Committee’s chairwoman, told reporters. 

FISA established a special federal court to approve
surveillance on suspected foreign spies working inside the United States.

Senate Judiciary chairman Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Ranking
Member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have also indicated “their concern and
interest” in introducing some sort of FISA-like legal check on the
administration’s authority to execute armed drone strikes, the California
Democrat said. 

Feinstein noted that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who chair’s
the Judiciary committee’s subpanel on the Constitution, Civil Rights and
Human Rights subpanel is already planning to hold hearings on the issue. 

Her comments came after Thursday’s confirmation hearing for
White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan to become the new head of Central
Intelligence Agency.   

“I know the [Senate] Judiciary committee is
interested” in developing some kind of legal framework to govern the use
of armed drones in counterterrorism operations, she said. 

“This is now out in the public arena, and now it has to
be addressed,” Feinstein said.

The effort to open the armed drone program to a
 FISA-like court came after the unexpected release of a previously
confidential Department of Justice white paper justifying U.S. drone operations
— even if those strikes target American citizens. 

If approved, the FISA-like authority for drone operations
would allow lawmakers to directly address some of the perceived problems with
the program, without dealing with the issues of classification surrounding the

“Right now it is very hard [to oversee] because it is
regarded as a covert activity, so when you see something that is wrong and you
ask to be able to address it, you are told no,” due the program being
steeped in secrecy. 

“We know it exists and I think this [program] has gone
as far as it can go, as a covert activity, and I think we really need to
address it,” Feinstein said. 

That said, Feinstein made clear the system of analysis and
verification in place at CIA and the White House to determine who ends up on
the so called CIA “kill list” for a drone strike is “a solid

Officials from the Senate intelligence committee also have
sent a team of observers to CIA headquarters in Langley, VA “on a regular
basis”  to review the intelligence analysis that goes into the
process, according to Feinstein. 

“The intelligence that is used [in the drone program]
is very careful and very good,” she said. 

But within that process, there is an “absence of
knowing who is responsible for [those] decisions” inside the White House
and intelligence community, she added. 

A FISA-like court process could go a long way to clearing up
that ambiguity that exists within the administration’s system of checks and
balances in the drone strike program. 

“I think we need to look at this whole process and try
to find a way to make it transparent and verifiable,” she said. 

Senate intelligence panel member Ron Wyden (D-Org.) raised
the issue of transparency on Thursday, pressing Brennan on whether CIA would
publicly accept responsibility for mistakenly labeling an individual as a
terror suspect and taking them out via armed drones. 

Surprisingly, Brennan told Wyden and the Senate panel that
under his leadership, CIA would be willing to publicly admit when an individual
is mistakenly targeted and taken out by U.S. drones. 

“As far as I am concerned … the U.S. should
[publicly] acknowledge it,” he told the Senate panel.

Public admission of a mistaken drone strike, or the strike
itself, would represent a break from the classified status of the entire U.S.
armed drone strike program. 

Last week, Feinstein, Leahy, Grassley and Durbin joined
other House and Senate members in pressing the White House to release the
classified DOJ legal memos on armed drone operations that formed the basis for
the leaked white paper. 

President Obama approved the release of the classified DOJ
documents to Feinstein’s committee last Wednesday, in anticipation of Brennan’s
confirmation hearing. 

However, Grassley and his counterparts on the House
Judiciary Committee demanded the White House release the documents to their
panels as well. 

“This committee has jurisdiction over the Constitution,
and as a result, we should have access to these [DOJ] memos as well,” the
Iowa Republican told reporters last Tuesday, a day after NBC News reported the
details of the white paper. 

The drone strikes have played a key role in the Obama
administration’s increasingly aggressive counterterrorism campaign against al
Qaeda. U.S. national security officials claim the strikes have decimated the
terror group’s top leaders in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

But top civil rights groups, such as the American Civil
Liberties Union, claim the counterterrorism tactic denies suspects —
particularly U.S. citizens — their rights to due process in favor of national
security objectives. 

Tags Chuck Grassley Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin Ron Wyden

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