TODAY | February 07, 2013
>> lawmakers are getting nuances about why the obama administration believes it is okay to use drones to kill expected terrorists including americans . it's an issue that will be key at today's confirmation hearing for the president's pick for cia. michael isikoff is calling this story for us. michael, good morning.
>> savannah, good morning. drone strikes, the obama administration's weapon of choice against terrorists are coming under scrutiny. after a disclosure justice department document obtained by nbc news this week that justifies the targeted killing of americans suspected of being top al qaeda leaders. for the first time today the white house is sharing the classified memo that lays out the legal basis for such strikes with members of the house and senate intelligence committees. the move comes at a crucial time as john brenan, president obama 's nominee to be cia director , faces his confirmation hearing today on capitol hill . in the war over drone strikes, a major reversal from the white house . after years of ironclad secrecy, president obama directed the justice department to share with members of the house and senate intelligence committees a classified memo laying out the legal grounds for drone strikes targeting u.s. citizens who are suspected operational leaders of al qaeda . the shift follows mounting demands to see the memos from members of congress .
>> they should produce this legal document . i don't think they should hold back anymore.
>> i'm going to pull out all the stops to get the actual legal analysis, because without it, in effect, the administration is practicing secret law .
>> the move comes two days after nbc news reported on this confidential 16-page justice department white paper that summarized the legal arguments for targeting u.s. citizens who are suspected al qaeda leaders, such as american born anwar al. the white house called such targeted killing a lawful act of self-defense and concluded they did not require the target was plotting a specific attack in the immediate future. the contents of the memo drew sharp criticism from some legal scholars .
>> it really looks like a subjective judgment by the american official who will make the call.
>> civil liberties advocates say the white house move is not enough.
>> it's a memo that really ought to be released to the public, not just members of congress . if the add manage is doing to be claiming authority to kill american citizens, it has an obligation to explain that claim and defend that claim to the public.
>> the drone debate will be front and center when white house counter-terrorism adviser john brenan faces confirmation hearing to be new cia director . brennan has been architect and one of its biggest defenders.
>> it's this surgical precision, the ability with laser-like focus to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al qaeda terrorist.
>> brennan will be facing other questions during the hearing including what he knew about enhanced interrogation, such as waterboarding when he served with the cia during the bush administration . another thing to come up, his acknowledgement he's been questioned by federal prosecutors investigating national security leaks under president obama . brennan told the senate intelligence committee in a written statement he's been told by his lawyer he's only a witness in those probes. savannah.
>> michael isikoff , thank you, a member of the intelligence committee , has pressed the white house on its drone policy. senator, thank you for being with us.
>> good morning.
>> first question, are you satisfied after saying the president was practicing secret law and stonewalling, are you satisfied these memos are released to some members of congress ?
>> this is an encouraging first step. especially because it comes at a time when the lines have blurred between the military and the intelligence field and it's going to be so important to do robust congressional oversight to protect our civil liberty , also i'm going to make sure it leads to an expanded public right to know.
>> let me ask you about the nomination of brennan to be cia director . you hinted you would pull out all the stops. does that mean you intend to block the nomination?
>> first of all, i never announce my position until we actually had a confirmation hearing. i do believe what was done yesterday is a step in the right direction but there is so much more to do. there is still substantial questions, for example, about what kind of evidence is appropriate in these kinds of operations, whether the individual can be captured. there are issues with respect to the geographic location of one of these operations. there is substantial additional work that needs to be done. it's really all about checks and balances. they have been out of whack in the past and that's what we've got to change.
>> very quickly, to tie that up, are you still open to the possibility of blocking brennan 's nomination?
>> i'm committed to making sure we get all the facts. the president called last night, early this morning. i'm going to be going in to read the opinion. we'll go from there.
>> let's take this beyond the theoretical. anwar al al awlaki, a senior operational leader of al qaeda . in your mind, is he an imthen threat, was he an imminent threat , or did he deserve more constitutional protections before the u.s. took him out.
>> first of all, the rule, savannah, with respect to talking about the details here are very restrictive. you really can't get into individuals. you can't get into countries. you can't get into which agency does what. i'm committed to making sure we strike a better balance of protecting american security and our liberties and our values, and i also think we ought can be looking at ways, in terms of the details about drones, to get more of that information declassified in a way that protects american security.
>> finally, as you well know, 83% of americans approve of these drone strokes, two-thirds, from a poll taken a year ago, approve on american citizens in some cases. it basically suggests americans trust the government to make these decisions and carry it out correctly. is that trust misplaced, in your view?
>> i believe the founding fathers thought the president should have significant power in the national security arena, but there has to be checks and balances. you can't just skirt those checks and balances if you think it's inconvenient.
>> senator ron wyden , good to have your perspective.