President Obama's choice to head the CIA offered a vigorous defense of the administration's use of drone aircraft to kill suspected al-Qaeda leaders in written responses to questions from the Senate panel that will review his nomination.
"These strikes are conducted in full compliance with the law," John Brennan wrote in a document released Wednesday. He said "rigorous standards" were applied.
Brennan wrote that civilian casualties caused by the strikes are "exceedingly rare, and much rarer, than many allege."
The use of armed drones to kill suspected al-Qaeda leaders around the world, a key piece of President Obama's counterterrorism strategy, is coming under intense scrutiny as Brennan heads to Capitol Hill for a confirmation hearing today.
Brennan, who is the top counterterrorism official in the White House, has been closely associated with the president's policy of targeting terrorist leaders in the Middle East and Africa with armed drones.
The hearing comes as a memorandum has surfaced that provides the legal justification for the targeted killings, even when they involve U.S. citizens overseas. The memo, first reported by NBC News on Monday, authorizes the killing of suspected terrorists overseas if they are judged an imminent threat to America. The memo says U.S. authorities aren't required to conclude a specific attack will take place "in the immediate future." The memo cites the 9/11 attacks as an example of why the U.S. may need to act before preparations for an attack are finalized.
A senior administration official said Wednesday that Obama directed the Justice Department to give the House and Senate intelligence committees access to the classified legal advice that provides the legal rationale for drone strikes against Americans working with al-Qaeda abroad, the Associated Press reported.
The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter by name.
"These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday. "The U.S. government takes great care in deciding to pursue an al-Qaeda terrorist, to ensure precision and to avoid loss of innocent life."
The killing of U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011 raised concerns about the precedent of targeting an American citizen. Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution analyst and member of the CIA External Advisory Board, said Brennan will probably face questions on the vetting process.
"He'll have to explain why the rules are the way they are in common-sense language," O'Hanlon said.
A group of senators wrote Obama this week to request that the Justice Department release the legal opinions used to justify the authorization to target American citizens.
The administration has relied on the drone strikes to keep pressure on al-Qaeda. The Long War Journal, an independent website that chronicles the war on terrorism, reported there have been at least 322 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan since January 2008.
The question of harsh interrogation techniques is also likely to come up at the hearing. Brennan held positions in the CIA during the Bush administration when such practices were used. He said in the written remarks he opposes the techniques and they are "counterproductive."
Contributing: David Jackson
(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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