Headlines on Capitol Hill sounded more like Ian Fleming espionage novels this week as a leaked memo over drone assassinations surfaced just in time for the confirmation hearing of CIA director nominee John Brennan.
The justice department legal memo released by NBC news last Tuesday, Feb. 5, spelled out the Obama administration’s justification for use of drone strikes on assassination targets — including U.S. citizens.
According to the leaked information, the U.S. has the authority to assassinate a citizen “continually planning attacks” for al-Qaida when an “informed, high-ranking” officer deems that the target “poses an imminent threat” and arrest is “infeasible.”
The report fueled the long-standing congressional frenzy for information from the White House about the legal justification for targeted killings, primarily by drone strikes.
Major players in Congress have been openly skeptical about the secret nature of drone strike strategy since the Obama administration’s quiet expansion of Bush-era intelligence and anti-terror programs.
Many believe it too great a power for the president to wield alone and without oversight.
In an attempt to stem the tide of controversy from Congress, a White House official announced Wednesday, Feb. 6, the administration’s intent to release additional information.
“Today, as part of the president’s ongoing commitment to consult with Congress on national security matters, the president directed the Department of Justice to provide the congressional intelligence committees access to classified Office of Legal Counsel advice related to the subject of the Department of Justice White Paper,” the official said.
One of those committees being the Senate Intelligence Committee, the same one responsible for conducting the confirmation hearing of John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s nominee for new CIA director.
Brennan currently serves as Homeland Security Advisor, and meets with the president daily for intelligence and counter-terrorism briefings.
Perfectly on cue, the focus of Brennan’s hearing surrounded questions about the administration’s use of drone strikes and CIA policy concerning interrogation and torture of detainees.
Brennan withdrew his name from consideration for CIA director during Obama’s first term after allegations surfaced of his support of CIA torture methods under the George W. Bush administration.
During that time Brennan acted as director of the Terrorist Threat Integration Center, an entity the directly briefed the president on terrorist intelligence daily.
Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Sen. Diane Feinstein repeatedly posed questions about how much information concerning targeted drone killings Brennan would be willing to share with Congress were he confirmed as director.
“We only use these authorities and these capabilities as a last resort,” Brennan said, agreeing Congress is entitled to some additional oversight over the drone program.
The hearing was forced into recess at one point after protestors from Code Pink, a leftist anti-war organization, interrupted the proceedings, forcing Feinstein to clear the room.
Though a tough week for intelligence personnel and presidential appointments, politics in this case may be Brennan’s saving grace.
Republicans are in favor of the drone program, and Democrats are not likely to block a Democratic president’s nominee.
If Fleming novels serve as proof, this license to kill “will return.”