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John Brennan Faces the Issue of the Drone War (Updated)

Coming just a few days before Brennan is scheduled to appear before the Senate IntelligenceCommittee, this demand along with the leaked Justice Department summary report of the legal memos that are still classified put great pressure on Brennan, who is largely considered to be the major advocate of and architect of increased use of drones by the administration. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, told the paper that “the idea that the president has this extraordinary power that can be utilized in secret without any oversight or accountability, I think is wrong and detrimental to the public interest.” In addition to Wyden, the letter was signed by Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee. In an age in which bi-partisanship is rare, this unity from both sides of the aisle puts great pressure on the White House, as well as on Brennan.

Today, the Post reported as well that the administration has fought hard to “keep [these memos] hidden from the public.” No wonder. I, and most Americans, have nothing but disdain and disgust for our fellow citizens who have become traitors to the country in which they were born, and work day and night to bring it to harm and kill as many of us as possible. But the great strength of our republic is that our Constitution affords us basic rights, including the right to a trial by our peers, and the right of legal counsel to present a strong defense of our actions. We are not talking about the likes of Osama bin Laden and other Islamist radicals who are not American, and who are hence not subject to the protection afforded our own citizens.

We may despise what they do, but we must realize that to allow for the violation of their rights harms not just the targeted individual but the rights of all of us. Once we make an exception to the liberties granted all U.S. citizens, a future White House can broaden the definition even further to limit more rights in the interest of national security. Moreover, although it is obviously more difficult to capture the individual U.S. citizen operating abroad who is part of a terror network, killing him by use of a drone means that he is no longer available as a source for more information, much of which could be extremely vital for gathering the kind of intelligence that would stop any future planned operation. Of course, it also means that the administration will not have to use the enhanced interrogation techniques that President Obama opposes, and which some might argue could be necessary to get the captured individual to cooperate. By killing the target instead, they have eliminated having ever to make such a judgment call.

Clearly, the memo shows a few different things. First, Barack Obama’s many campaign promises before the 2008 election were put by the wayside once he realized that the kind of actions he swore to stop were necessary in carrying out the war against terror, even though many of the measures had been implemented by the Bush administration. Second, the administration which came into power pledging to be the most transparent in our history has turned out to be no more willing to let its secrets be known by the American public than any before it. Third, Barack Obama has extended the powers of the executive and what used to be called “the imperial presidency” by liberals more than any other previous commander-in-chief, but this time his lofty rhetoric has succeeded in quieting liberal critics of past administrations, because they want him to succeed, and hence he has a green light to move forward untrammeled.

The president had a problem with Chuck Hagel after his disastrous testimony before a Senate committee. Although Hagel most likely will squeak through, albeit embarrassed and compromised, will John Brennan now face the kind of questions he cannot answer, and possibly be stopped from ascending to the post of CIA chief, which seemed to most observers at first to be a done deal? We will learn the answer soon.

Update: 11:15 a.m. EST, Feb.6, 2013

Some readers are upset to find, at a conservative website, a critique of the Obama administration’s legal reasons advanced in the cited memo for using drone attacks. They fear that it means one writer, myself, is soft on terrorism. I admonish readers to consider that this is a complicated issue, and by now, others have weighed in.

First, here is what Jim Geragthy writes in his “Morning Jolt” e-mail sent to National Review readers:

Let me throw you a curveball by quoting Adam Serwer of Mother Jones, reacting to the administration's release of its legal justification to kill Americans believed to be involved with terror without a trial, by drone:

The Obama administration claims that the secret judgment of a single "well-informed high level administration official" meets the demands of due process and is sufficient justification to kill an American citizen suspected of working with terrorists. That procedure is entirely secret. Thus it's impossible to know which rules the administration has established to protect due process and to determine how closely those rules are followed. The government needs the approval of a judge to detain a suspected terrorist. To kill one, it need only give itself permission.

Of course, the hypocrisy of most liberals doesn't get us off the hook on the need to have a coherent view on this. Okay, conservatives, big question now:  If this were President Romney, would we be shrugging, concerned, complaining or screaming? I think "concerned." At the very least, you would want another set of eyes – the House or Senate intelligence committees, or some independent judges – taking a look at the presidential "kill list," right? At least for the American citizens?

Our Charles C.W. Cooke: "In case my position isn't obvious: I am appalled by any president possessing the unilateral power to kill American citizens extrajudicially."

Senator Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, puts it rather bluntly: "Every American has the right to know when their government believes that it is allowed to kill them."

That doesn't seem like too much to ask.

Second, a major debate takes place at TNR. Read the two entries by its legal editor, Jeffrey Rosen, and the rebuttal by Jack Goldsmith, who served in the White House as a counsel during the Bush administration, but who resigned and who had differences with the opinions of other advisors. I find it interesting that TNR, the new very liberal TNR, has to go to someone who served in the hated Bush administration for a defense of the Obama administration’s legal arguments for use of drones.

I report, you decide. I think that Rosen has the best argument. You may disagree. But again, let’s avoid ad hominem remarks, and seriously look at the issues.

More from Scott Ott:

American Citizens Fair Game Under Obama Doctrine