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Sen. King Calls for Judicial Oversight of Drone Strikes

Senate Intelligence Committee member Angus King on Friday asked the leaders of the panel to incorporate language into the fiscal 2014 intelligence authorization bill setting up a court to review targeted killings of U.S. citizens in foreign countries.

The Maine independent’s request in a letter to the committee’s leaders came on the same day as leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees unveiled letters to President Barack Obama directly requesting access to Department of Justice legal opinions justifying overseas drone strikes against U.S. citizens suspected of being terrorists.

The series of letters are evidence of growing momentum in Congress to address the use of drones, both legislatively and with regular committee oversight. The concerns extend to whether Congress needs to enact legislation to protect the privacy of U.S. citizens from domestic drones, and to specify where drone strikes can be used overseas.

Obama’s nomination of John O. Brennan to lead the CIA has touched off some of the congressional commotion over drones. As the top White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, Brennan has guided the administration’s drone strike policies. At his nomination hearing Thursday, Brennan was questioned extensively about their use.

King’s idea in his letter to Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and her vice chairman, Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., would be to create a court similar to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which issues warrants for conducting surveillance. That court was created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (PL 95-511).

“As the committee begins preparing the intelligence authorization act for fiscal year 2014, I ask that you work with me to contemplate legislative solutions, such as the creation of an outside judicial process similar to the FISA court, that might provide an independent perspective in the distinctive case of a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda,” King wrote.

Feinstein said at Brennan’s hearing that she would review legislative proposals on drone strikes, including one similar to King’s. Brennan said the idea of a court deserves consideration, but he said the administration had wrestled with a similar idea and decided that courts were not best suited for a more military, executive branch-related function.

The House and Senate Judiciary panels on Friday stepped up their pressure to receive documents related to the drone strikes.

In a letter to Obama dated Feb. 7 and released Friday, Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and top committee Republican Charles E. Grassley of Iowa wrote that they were entitled to the same Office of Legal Counsel memos provided to the Intelligence committees.

“The deliberate killing of a United States citizen pursuant to a targeted operation authorized or aided by our government raises significant constitutional and legal concerns that fall squarely within the jurisdiction of the committee,” Leahy and Grassley wrote.

Leaders of the House Judiciary Committee and several of its subcommittees also released a letter to Obama dated Feb. 8, asking Obama to uphold his commitment at the beginning of his first term to make transparency and openness a “cornerstone” of his presidency.

“We therefore request that you direct the Justice Department to provide members of the House Judiciary Committee the opportunity to review all legal opinions relied upon by your administration related to the use of lethal force to target specific terror suspects or the broader use of signature strikes,” they wrote. “Congress is perfectly equipped to confidentially handle sensitive information, and we are willing to discuss whatever safeguards you believe necessary to protect the information.”

The letter was signed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., and ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.; Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. and ranking member Robert C. Scott, D-Va.; Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee Chairman Trent Franks, R-Ariz. and ranking member Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.

Publicly, administration officials have alternately argued that further disclosure of classified Office of Legal Counsel advice would jeopardize intelligence sources and methods, and that it is extremely rare that such documents are disclosed to Congress. The House Judiciary Committee’s letter stated that the administration had not answered its three previous requests for the documents.

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