President Barack Obama’s choice to head the CIA has brought the secretive use of unmanned drones to attack terrorist targets to the forefront of the counter-terrorism discussion.
Nominee John Brennan, a strong supporter of drone attacks, will face questioning from senators Thursday in a confirmation hearing. The nomination also has shed light on a previously secret drone base in Saudi Arabia, where Brennan served as CIA station chief. The Washington Post and The New York Times reported the existence of the base on Wednesday.
The reports said Brennan was instrumental in negotiating with Riyadh over placing the drone base in the kingdom. The base has helped to hunt down al-Qaida terrorists in neighboring Yemen.
Critics say drone attacks are immoral and sometimes lead to civilian deaths. Pakistan has strongly criticized U.S. drone strikes in that country’s tribal regions.
Brennan has defended the use of drones as legal, ethical and highly effective.
Obama has said Brennan’s counter-terrorism work has made it harder for al-Qaida to plan attacks against the United States.
On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder explained the Obama administration’s rationale behind legally allowing the government to kill U.S. citizens abroad if it believes they are senior al-Qaida leaders actively engaged in planning operations to kill Americans.
Holder spoke after the leak of a confidential Justice Department memo on the government’s use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects. Holder said the government only conducts actions in a way that abides by federal and international law.
“Our primary concern is to keep the American people safe, but to do so in a way that is consistent with our laws and consistent with our values,” he said. “We have, as a basis for action that we take, a congressional statute that allows us to operate against al-Qaida and associated entities, not only in Pakistan or not only in Afghanistan, but in other parts of the world.”
Holder explained the targeted suspects must pose an “imminent threat” of violent attack on the United States. He also specified that capturing the suspect must be deemed infeasible.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday the president takes his responsibility in conducting the war against al-Qaida terrorists very seriously, asserting the government’s use of remotely piloted aircraft to target terrorists is necessary to prevent attacks on the United States.
“We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing, actual threats to stop plots, prevent future attacks and, again, save American lives. These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise,” he said.
Drone strikes have increased against al-Qaida suspects overseas. Some of these strikes have targeted U.S. citizens, including alleged al-Qaida operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan.
On Monday, U.S. senators sent a letter to Obama asking that he provide Congress with the secret legal documents that outline his authority to kill Americans in counterterrorism operations overseas. The lawmakers say the documents are needed for proper oversight of the executive branch.