WASHINGTON — Uncomfortable with the Obama administration's use of deadly drones, a growing number in Congress is looking to limit America's authority to kill suspected terrorists, even U.S. citizens.
The Democratic-led outcry was emboldened by the revelation in a newly surfaced Justice Department memo that shows drones can strike against a wider range of threats, with less evidence, than previously believed.
The drone program, which has been used from Pakistan across the Middle East and into North Africa to find and kill an unknown number of suspected terrorists, is expected to be a top topic of debate when the Senate Intelligence Committee questions White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan on Thursday at his confirmation hearing to become director of the CIA.
The White House on Tuesday defended its lethal drone program by citing the very laws that some in Congress once believed were appropriate in the years immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks but now think may be too broad.
"It has to be in the agenda of this Congress to reconsider the scope of action of drones and use of deadly force by the United States around the world because the original authorization of use of force, I think, is being strained to its limits," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said in a recent interview.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said Tuesday that "it deserves a serious look at how we make the decisions in government to take out, kill, eliminate, whatever word you want to use, not just American citizens but other citizens as well."
Hoyer added: "We ought to carefully review our policies as a country."
Earlier this week, a group of 11 Democratic and Republican senators urged President Barack Obama to release a classified Justice Department legal opinion justifying when U.S. counterterror missions, including drone strikes, can be used to kill American citizens abroad.
Without those documents, it's impossible for Congress and the public to decide "whether this authority has been properly defined, and whether the president's power to deliberately kill Americans is subject to appropriate limitations and safeguards," the senators wrote.
First detailed publicly by NBC News late Monday, the memo for the first time outlines the Obama administration's decision to kill al-Qaida terror suspects without any evidence that specific and imminent plots are being planned against the United States. "The threat posed by al-Qaida and its associated forces demands a broader concept of imminence in judging when a person continually planning terror attacks presents an imminent threat," concluded the document.
The memo was immediately decried by civil liberties groups as "flawed" and "profoundly disturbing" — especially in light of 2011 U.S. drone strikes in Yemen that killed three American citizens: Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old-son and Samir Khan. Al-Awlaki was linked to the planning and execution of several attacks targeting U.S. and Western interests, including the attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and the plot to bomb cargo planes in 2010. His son was killed in a separate strike on a suspected al-Qaida den. Khan was an al-Qaida propagandist.
The Washington Post reported that the attack that killed al-Awlaki was carried out in part by CIA drones flown from a secret base in Saudi Arabia. The base was established two years ago to intensify the hunt against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the affiliate in Yemen is known. Brennan, who previously served as the CIA's station chief in Saudi Arabia, played a key role in negotiations with Riyadh over locating an agency drone base inside the kingdom.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, echoing comments Brennan made in a speech in April, called the strikes legal, ethical and wise and said they are covered by a law that Congress approved allowing the use of military force against al-Qaida.
"And certainly, under that authority, the president acts in the United States' interest to protect the United States and its citizens from al-Qaida," Carney said Tuesday.
"It is a matter of fact that Congress authorized the use of military force against al-Qaida," Carney said. "It is a matter of fact that al-Qaida is in a state of war against us and that senior leaders, operational leaders of al-Qaida are continually plotting to attack the United States, plotting to kill American citizens as they did most horrifically on September 11th of 2001."
Three days after that attack, Congress approved a law authorizing the military to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against al-Qaida and other groups believed to be helping or harboring the global terror network, including the use of drone strikes. In the decade since the attacks, U.S. intelligence officials say, al-Qaida has splintered into a number of affiliates and allied sympathizers. That means the current laws could allow military force against thousands of extremists across the Mideast and North Africa who have limited or no ability to strike the United States.
Both the CIA and the U.S. military are authorized to remotely pilot unmanned, missile-carrying drones against terror suspects. It's unknown exactly how many strikes have been carried out.