The defense of the United States is President Barack Obama’s — any president’s — chief priority. That doesn’t, however, mean that the president alone ought to decide who lives and who dies.
These days, the administration keeps a kill list whose members are chosen by the president. Included are U.S. citizens who live in other countries and who are suspected of being terrorists. At least one who was a U.S. citizen — Anwar al-Awlaki — was added to the list in 2009 and killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
There was no doubt al-Awlaki was a terrorist. He was involved in two unsuccessful attacks on the United States: an attempted bombing in Times Square and the Detroit underwear bombing. Nor is there much doubt in warfare today, in which the enemy often consists of groups rather than nations, that targeted strikes such as special forces raids and drone attacks are more effective ways to weaken al-Qaida than deploying troops.
There is considerable doubt, however, about the president’s authority to serve as judge, jury and executioner over such individuals — especially if they’re U.S. citizens.
Thus the policy and a Justice Department document rationalizing it are certain to be topics Thursday at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing of John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to be CIA director.
Mr. Brennan’s credentials are impressive. He is a 25-year intelligence veteran, and when the National Counterterrorism Center was established after the 9/11 attacks, he became its first director. He also was among top CIA officials when the George W. Bush administration authorized torture and is considered the architect of the CIA drone program, which has involved attacks in Libya, Somalia and Pakistan in addition to Yemen. And having served as President Obama’s national security adviser for the last four years, Mr. Brennan has wielded considerable influence in the selection of targets.
Among issues senators should inquire about are the standard of proof, including how evidence is vetted, for individuals this country targets; whether there is a higher standard for suspects who are U.S. citizens and, importantly, whether anyone outside the administration is involved in the decisions.
It is not too much to insist on a policy that would require close congressional oversight, allow execution only as a last resort and one limited only to individuals who have actively participated or actively planned attacks. Also, if the potential target is a U.S. citizen, evidence of involvement in terrorism should be presented to a body such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — before the person is added to the list.