House Democrats Demand Answers From Obama On Drones

Several members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have sent a letter [PDF] to the Obama administration demanding greater openness on all aspects of its counterterrorism-related targeted killing program.

The majority of the letter focuses on if and when armed drones could be used to target U.S. citizens on American soil, the topic of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY)’s nearly thirteen-hour filibuster last week. Much like Sen. Paul, the Congresspeople behind the letter cite the vagaries of an unclassified white paper on when Americans could be considered viable targets as leaving them “deeply concerned.” That white paper — first leaked to the press last month — was a summary of several classified Department of Justice memos that go into further detail regarding the legal justification of the program.

In writing to President Obama, the members are calling for a full declassification of the DOJ memos related to targeting Americans and seeking to clarify what to them is an overly broad authority regarding the use of drones in carrying out administration policy, “including but not limited to”:

  • An unbounded geographic scope;
  • Unidentified ‘high-level’ officials with authority to approve kill-lists;
  • A vaguely defined definition of whether a capture is “feasible”;
  • An overly broad definition of the phrase “imminent threat,” which re-defines the word in a way that strays significantly from its traditional legal meaning; and
  • The suggestion that killing American citizens and others would be legitimate “under the Authorization for Use of Military Force and the inherent right to national self-defense.”

The questions put forward go beyond Paul’s concerns, which were almost entirely related to the domestic use of armed drones. Instead, the Progressive Caucus letter delves into the use of drones as a weapons platform overseas, particularly their use in “signature strikes”:


We also ask that you prepare a report for Congress outlining the architecture of your Administration’s drone program going forward, including your efforts to limit instances and remunerate victims of civilian causalities by signature drone strikes, broaden access to due process for identified targets and continue to structure the drone program within the framework of international law.

Many of the issues at play in the letter branch from the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that first cleared the path for retaliatory strikes against Al Qaeda, and has been used by the Obama administration as the justification for its strikes around the world against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. The broad nature of the AUMF has led to several Congressional Progressive Caucus members co-sponsoring a bill to fully repeal it, a move backed by the New York Times editorial board this weekend. Of those members, at least Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) would be in favor of replacing the AUMF with a narrower authorization, according to his office.