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Lawmakers Debate Oversight of Drone Strikes

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, offered new details Sunday about his ideas for creating a special court to oversee drone strikes against U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism, which has gained momentum as senators consider John O. Brennan’s nomination to run the CIA.

King, a freshman on the Intelligence Committee, said his proposal would not prevent intelligence agents from targeting people suspected of carrying out imminent attacks, which has been a main focus of criticism from skeptics of the idea. “I think that misunderstands what the circumstances are,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” If there’s a need for an immediate strike, “that’s a commander in chief job. I’m certainly not questioning that,” King said. But he said his understanding is that will not routinely be the case because “often these strikes are planned weeks in advance.”

On the same program, President Barack Obama’s first Defense secretary, Robert Gates, said the idea of applying “some check” on a president’s power to order drone strikes is worth “serious consideration.” He added: “The rules and the practices that the Obama administration has followed are quite stringent and are not being abused. But who is to say about a future president?”

Congressional interest in creating a special court — along the lines of the secret panel of federal judges that reviews requests for surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases — grew last week in part because of the confirmation hearing for Brennan, who helped managed the drone program as the president’s top counterterrorism adviser; in advance of the hearing, Obama told the Justice Department to give the two Intelligence committees the access they had been seeking to the classified legal rationale for drone strikes against American citizens assisting al-Qaida overseas.

Brennan said at his hearing that the administration had considered the court idea and rejected it but was willing to revisit the concept because “American citizens by definition are due much greater due process than anybody else by dint of their citizenship.” The next day, King asked the leaders of Senate Intelligence to include creation of such a court in their fiscal 2014 intelligence authorization bill. Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she would review legislative proposals on drone strikes similar to what King has proposed.

House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said the administration has been forthcoming enough with Congress for lawmakers to have sufficient information to monitor the drone strikes. “There is plenty of oversight here,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

He also defended the practice of targeting U.S. citizens who have joined forces with al-Qaida, while noting that there has been “sensationalism” in the notion that there was a “kill list” of Americans. “If you join forces with the enemy, there’s a long-standing tradition, that in and of itself — you lose your constitutional protections,” Rogers said.

He also said that the best-known U.S. citizen killed by a drone — Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric in Yemen who was an official with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula — was a “bad guy” who posed a clear threat of directing additional attacks

But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said that any citizen targeted for death by the U.S. government should be tried for treason first and that it was “unseemly” that the decision on a killing rests only with “politicians.” A drone strike also took out Awlaki’s son, also a U.S. citizen, and the administration still hasn’t answered questions about that or whether the government could kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, Paul said. He said the drone strikes made him more concerned about Brennan than any other Obama nominee.

The debate about drones, and its potential ability to slow the confirmation of a new CIA chief, came as one prominent Republican reiterated and intensified his threat to block the confirmations of both Brennan and former Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said he would use his power to put a hold on both nominees until he received all the information he wants about who shaped the administration’s response to this fall’s attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and other information related to the attack — including details of the president’s actions during and right afterward.

The White House is “stonewalling” and “I’m not going to stop until we get to the bottom of it,” Graham said on CBS. “We know nothing about what the president did on the night of Sept. 11, during a time of national crisis, and the American people need to know what their commander in chief did, if anything, during the eight-hour attack.”

The White House did not respond directly to Graham’s demand for more information. Instead, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor urged that Brennan and Hagel be confirmed quickly. “These are critical national security positions and individual members shouldn’t play politics with their nominations,” he said.

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