White House, Congress square off over Justice Dept. rules for drone strikes

Lawmakers squared off with the Obama administration Tuesday after the inadvertent leak of a sensitive Justice Department memorandum defending the White House's right to order armed drone strikes potentially against U.S. citizens. 


Lawmakers went on the offensive shortly after details of the memo became public, demanding Department of Justice (DOJ) officials disclose additional information on the specific legal arguments justifying unmanned drone strikes against Americans. 

The DOJ memo, first reported by NBC News, outlined the criteria U.S. military or intelligence officials must follow before it can launch a targeted drone strike against terror suspects — even if those suspects happen to be American citizens. 

If a suspect can be proven to pose an imminent threat to U.S. national security, and it is not feasible to capture the individual, a drone strike becomes an option, Justice Department officials wrote.

But a strike must be conducted in line with the international laws of war, officials added. 

"[The] analysis is now public and the American people can review and judge the legality of these operations ... [but] the committee continues to seek the actual legal opinions by the Department of Justice that provide details not outlined in this particular white paper," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFeinstein says she thinks Biden will run after meeting with him Trump judicial nominee Neomi Rao seeks to clarify past remarks on date rape Bottom Line MORE (D-Calif) said in a statement Tuesday. 

A bipartisan group of 11 senators, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGOP advances rules change to speed up confirmation of Trump nominees GOP leader presses Trump to agree to border deal Trump divides Democrats with warning of creeping socialism MORE (D-Ill.), sent a letter to the White House also requesting more information on targeted drone operations overseas, according to recent reports. 

But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney fired back against those demands. He claimed the guidelines for targeting Americans in drone strikes are "fully consistent” with the Constitution.

Further, the White House has no intention of releasing "alleged memos regarding potentially classified matters" pertaining to counterterrorism operations involving armed drone strikes, Carney said in response to lawmakers' demands. 

The DOJ memo, which was distributed to select lawmakers last June but never intended for public release, was an attempt by the Obama administration to add transparency into the armed drone strategy, according to Carney. 

Targeted drone strikes against suspected terrorists across the globe are sometimes "necessary to mitigate ongoing attacks," Carney explained. "[The strikes] are legal, they are ethical and they are wise," he added. 

House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) agreed with Carney, saying the White House is granted the "authority and the obligation" to take lethal action.  

"When an individual has joined al-Qaida ... and actively plots future attacks against U.S. citizens, soldiers, and interests around the world, the U.S. government has both the authority and the obligation to defend the country against that threat.”

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 the drone strikes, particularly those targeting U.S. citizens suspected of collaborating with groups like al Qaeda, have drawn fierce opposition from civil-liberties groups claiming due process is being trampled in the name of national security.

To that end, Feinstein's panel is pressing the White House for details of a 2011 drone strike that killed U.S. citizen and suspected al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki.

Al-Awlaki, a radical Islamic cleric who was also a Yemeni citizen, was suspected of being the head of operations for al Qaeda's Yemeni cell, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Feinstein noted that there remain "significant questions" over the intelligence that led to al-Awlaki's placement on the CIA's so-called “kill list” and the actual drone strike in Yemen that killed him and his 16 year-old son, Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, who was also a U.S. citizen. 

Carney on Monday declined to comment on the death of the teenager, saying he would not address counterterrorism operations "that may or may not have occured." 

President Obama "understands the gravity of these issues," but believes it’s "entirely appropriate" to target al Qaeda's top leaders, regardless of nationality, Carney said.

Congress already signed off on the administration's plans to use "all necessary military force" via the Authorization for use of Military Force legislation, and the White House is just acting under that authority.

"That's a reality that the commander in chief has to confront," Carney added.