WASHINGTON - The Obama administration’s targeted killing of militants and suspected terrorists overseas may get its first congressional scrutiny Thursday afternoon when John Brennan, the chief architect of the drone program, undergoes his Senate confirmation hearing as CIA director.
Brennan, the White House counterterrorism advisor, has overseen the expanded use of missile-firing drone aircraft to kill an estimated 3,000 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia over the last four years without direct congressional or judicial oversight.
Congress has never held a hearing on the issue, and the administration has given no detailed public accounting of who chooses the targets and under what restrictions, how often civilians are inadvertently killed, or the frequency and extent of intelligence mistakes.
Brennan entered the hearing room to a chorus of protests from members of Code Pink, a peace group opposed to the drone killing program. “Assassination is against the Constitution! You are betraying democracy!” one protester shouted before he and several others were escorted from the room by Capitol police.
Civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes are "in the single digits" each year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in her opening statement. She said the administration must be more transparent about the drone program, which is highly classified.
On Wednesday, the White House dropped its longtime resistance to sharing secret legal documents on the targeted killing program, and ordered the Justice Department to release to congressional intelligence committees the classified opinions used to justify sending drones to kill U.S. citizens abroad who are considered terrorists.
The release came after NBC News obtained a shorter, unclassified Justice Department “white paper,” which summarized some of the legal arguments.
The document states that an "informed, high-level official" can approve a drone strike against a suspect, including an American citizen, without evidence that he is planning a terrorist operation.
"An 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require … clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future," the paper says.
The release came after a bipartisan group of 11 senators wrote a letter requesting more information about the legal justification for targeted killings, especially of Americans. At least one, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), had hinted that he might filibuster Brennan’s confirmation if the administration didn’t comply.
Four Americans have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, although only one was specifically targeted. In September 2011, a missile killed Anwar Awlaki, a charismatic Al Qaeda propagandist and operations leader who was born in New Mexico.