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ACLU, Congress Await Obama’s Next Action on Overseas Drone Strikes

REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Lt Col Leslie Pratt/Handout
A MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft, operated by U.S. Air Force is one of the types of drones used to attack terror suspects. Questions about the authorization of their use by President Obama remain unanswered. Photo by REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Lt Col Leslie Pratt/Handout.

As the American Civil Liberties Union’s chief Washington lobbyist, Chris Anders spends a lot of time with members of Congress and their staffs. But he says no one seems to know when President Barack Obama will fulfill his promise to engage Congress and the public on the controversial use of U.S. drone attacks to kill terror suspects.

“I was just in a meeting yesterday with a couple of key congressional staff who’ve asked the White House if they have a proposal, if they have anything they want to engage on and they got nothing back in response,” Anders said by phone Thursday as he rode in a taxi to a Capitol Hill meeting.

“The administration has not given Congress any guidance on what [it’s] looking for other than a promise that the president would be providing a longer explanation of the targeted killing program and explaining it to the country,” said Anders.

In October 2012 on The Daily Show, Mr. Obama said of the U.S. drone strike program, “we’ve got to … put a legal architecture in place, and we need Congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in but any president’s reined in, in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making.”

The highly secret drone program dates to the George W. Bush administration, but the vast majority of away-from-the-battlefield strikes — largely in Pakistan and Yemen — have occurred under Mr. Obama.

The strikes have generated anti-American sentiment in both those countries.

The New America Foundation counts more than 420 targeted strikes in the last eight years which killed between 2,426 and 3,969 people, overwhelmingly militants, as well as up to 368 civilians.

A year ago, after an American-born suspected terrorist, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed by a U.S. drone in Yemen, Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed the strikes as legally permissible.

“The use of force in foreign territory would be consistent with … international legal principles if conducted, for example, with the consent of the nation involved — or after a determination that the nation is unable or unwilling to deal effectively with a threat to the United States,” Holder said in a speech at the Northwestern University School of Law.

“The U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self-defense against a leader of al Qaida or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful — and therefore would not violate the Executive Order banning assassination,” Holder said.

The ACLU’s Anders calls that an “elastic” interpretation of self-defense.

And the administration has been reluctant to share the specific legal memoranda that certify their assertions.

During the confirmation process for new CIA director John Brennan, documents certifying the legality of strikes on Americans on foreign soil were shown to members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees.

But Anders says there are six more legal memos that claim perhaps even broader authority to attack non-Americans outside the U.S. that the administration has not shared. The ACLU has sued the government to get them.

“What Congress needs to see are the other six legal opinions because if they saw [them] they would have a much better idea of the breadth of the legal authority the president is claiming to use drones and other lethal force away from the battlefield,” Anders said.

“It’s telling that there isn’t a single country in the entire world that agrees with the U.S’s claims of authority to use lethal force away from the battlefield. So the U.S. is on its own. My guess is if the rest of the legal opinions dealing with non-citizens were publicly disclosed we would find that they’re even farther afield from where the law is and … that is why they haven’t been disclosed.”

In recent weeks, supporters of President Obama, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and former Clinton administration official John Podesta, have urged the president to involve Congress and open up about the drone program and its justifications.

Meanwhile, fresh polls show the drone strikes are increasingly unpopular with the public, potentially cutting into Mr. Obama’s political strength in coming policy battles with Congress.


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