Senator Questions White House's Handling Of Drone Program

Robert Siegel speaks with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon about the Obama administration's shift on drone policy. Wyden was part of a group of senators who demanded that the administration turn over secret documents related to the operation against Amwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen killed in Yemen in a drone strike.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Back in January, Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden put this question in writing to John Brennan, who was then President Obama's counterterrorism chief and his nominee to run the CIA: How much evidence does the president need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed?

Well, then in February, Ron Wyden was one of 11 senators to demand secret documents about the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based American citizen who was implicated in anti-U.S. terror plots. Well, Senator Wyden joins us now once again. Welcome to the program.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: Robert, thanks for having me back.

SIEGEL: And has President Obama now allayed the concern you expressed to us here in February that the standard for targeting Americans was, to quote you, trust us?

WYDEN: Well, first of all, I think the president's speech today offered some valuable details with respect to the administration's rules and policies for counterterrorism. I do think that there's going to be a need to provide more specifics about, for example, how much evidence the president needs to decide whether a particular American is a terrorist, how the government distinguishes terrorists from civilians.

When you do that, you give the American people and our allies the opportunity to fully evaluate the rules for the use of lethal force based on a clear understanding of the facts rather than, in effect, vague and confusing press accounts. But today, I think some real progress was made.

SIEGEL: Well, let's return to the case of al-Awlaki. The administration says that they based the targeting of him not just on what he had said, but what he had done, that he had become the chief of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Are you satisfied that the al-Awlaki killing, at least in hindsight, passed a stringent but reasonable standard?

WYDEN: Well, without getting into matters that are classified, clearly when you look at these individuals, one of the key questions is their involvement in, in effect, the operational planning, and certainly there was a lot of evidence of that.

SIEGEL: The administration's document governing the use of lethal force against terror suspects remains classified. But they say lethal force should be used only when capturing a suspect is not feasible. Are you satisfied with that standard?

WYDEN: Again, I'm going to have some more to say about this before long. I do think progress was made in that area. The president has explained the policies and the rules and the procedures he's using in more detail than the public has heard to date. That's a welcome development.

Number one, I was very pleased that the president raised the concern that overly broad leak investigations may chill the active investigative journalism that you and others do that's so important to our democracy. This has been a priority of mine. I battled hard. We were successful to fight overly broad anti-leaks legislation earlier, and that's important.

SIEGEL: Well, then let's - let's talk about the system then. The president sort of battered around the idea of FISA courts - that is special intelligence security courts. One could imagine Congress being brought in, in some way, in advance of strikes. He says, in every case, the Congress was briefed when there were drone strikes. Do you have thoughts on what the system should be to precede this?

WYDEN: I have reservation, Robert, about this idea of just setting up more special courts. I mean, it's not as if we've struck the right balance with respect to the FISA court at this point in terms of protecting the American people. I've been trying to get a number of these opinions declassified for years now. We haven't been able to do it.

So I would just urge a little bit of caution around this idea of setting up special courts because it's not as if the right balance has yet been secured between protecting the public and protecting liberty yet on FISA courts.

SIEGEL: One other point: If some drone strikes are handed over by the CIA to the Defense Department, if the responsibility is transferred, would that make you any more confident that the military would observe rules and standards more dutifully or more transparently than the CIA has?

WYDEN: There's certainly a case for making that transfer. I still think we have to address these questions that I and others are bringing it up on the Hill.

SIEGEL: Bringing it up in the form of legislation or in the form of hearings? What are you talking about?

WYDEN: We'll do both. As you know, I've written a number of public letters with respect to these issues. There are some matters that have to be addressed behind closed doors. I do think that the transfer to the Defense Department, there is a good case for doing that, but there's still a lot of details that have to be addressed with respect to drone use.

SIEGEL: Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, thank you very much.

WYDEN: Thanks, Robert.

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