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Initially unmanned aircraft - drones - were designed to collect intelligence, which seemed like a good idea. Then they were engineered with the ability to conduct strikes against enemy targets without the risk of American casualties, which also seemed smart. But now they are killing Americans who are sympathetic to al-Qaida - like Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011 and later his son. And that is troublesome.
On what grounds were these Americans targeted and killed? Was there a presidential finding that was sent to the House and Senate intelligence committees? Did the administration seek approval from a secret court like it must for domestic surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA)? Did they obtain a warrant from a judge as is required by Section 501 of the much-maligned Patriotic Act? Was there judicial review?
Apparently none of this happened. Rather, a secret memo was drafted by the Justice Department that allowed the assassination of Americans if unnamed but "high-ranking" officials deemed that they posed "an imminent threat" and capture was not feasible.
So what was the "imminent threat" from al-Awlaki and his son, both of whom were American citizens? To date there is no answer. Why were they denied due process while Khalid Sheik Mohammad, the master mind of 9/11 and a foreign national, is given a courtroom trial in Guantanamo?
Where is the outcry? Where is the outrage? Have Americans been so numbed by their "Obama-mania" that they allow assassination of U.S. citizens to pass muster even though two of our three branches of government have not approved it?
In the 1980s, when I served as chief of staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee, we withdrew all funding for the Reagan administration's "Contra" program because the committee had not been properly informed of the mining of harbors in Nicaragua.
Chairman Barry Goldwater, an Arizona Republican, angrily wrote to Reagan's CIA chief, William Casey, that he was "pissed off." Subsequently Vice Chairman Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat from New York, threatened to resign from the committee in protest.
What was remarkable was that the opposition to Reagan's action was bipartisan. Republicans and Democrats voted to stop funding to the Contra program and both parties eventually agreed to the Iran-Contra hearings on the secret war in Central America. No Americans were assassinated - it was simply that foreign harbors were mined and covert funds were misallocated without congressional approval or judicial review.
During the same period the Intelligence Committees had oversight responsibilities for the FISA Court - a secret court located in the Justice Department where the FBI made routine requests for permission to tap the phones of U.S. citizens for intelligence purposes. Every year the committee held closed hearings on the requests and their disposition.
This procedure was designed to abide by the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches. We were not going to kill them - just listen to their phone calls.
Likewise, Section 501 of the Patriotic Act requires the FBI director to submit an application to a United States magistrate judge under Chapter 43 of title 28. The judge must grant an order to produce records before a library or anyone else is required to respond to requests for information. The bill was designed to improve intelligence collection to prevent another attack like 9/11. The lives of citizens are not threatened.
So where are we today?
Somehow the use of drones has morphed from intelligence collection, to conducting strikes against enemy combatants to assassinating Americans. And yet the mechanisms that have been used in the past to ensure that the rights of Americans are protected - congressional oversight of the intelligence community, applications to secret courts, seeking warrants from a judge - have been bypassed in favor of a secret internal memorandum in the Justice Department, only made public when leaked to NBC News.
Sadly, none of our leaders in Washington today have the moral outrage to be "pissed off" like Barry Goldwater or the moral courage to resign in protest like Sen. Moynihan.
It seems we have all become a nation of drones.
Rob Simmons served as staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1981 to 1985 under Chairman Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) and Vice Chairman Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) As a member of Congress he chaired the Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee and is currently chairman of the board of the Yankee Institute of Public Policy in East Hartford.