February 10th, 2013
11:08 AM ET
10 years ago

Gates: Drone program, while useful, would benefit from more oversight

Washington (CNN) – The number of innocent victims of drone strikes remains "extremely small" and doesn't outweigh the benefits of using drones to take out al Qaeda operatives, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued Sunday.

But the former Pentagon chief said a better system of checks and balances could be constructive when the unmanned aerial devices are used to target Americans, aligning himself with lawmakers concerned about unfettered power in the hands of the president.

"I think some check on the ability of the president to do this has merit, as we look to the longer term future," Gates told CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley on "State of the Union."

Gates served under George W. Bush during the beginnings of the drone program and later under President Barack Obama as the use of drones spiked. Recently lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have forcefully questioned the use and oversight of the lethal devices.

"I'm a big advocate of drones," Gates said, detailing how as CIA director under Bush, he pressed for ramping up the use of drones to monitor and target suspected terrorists.

While innocent people are killed by drones, "the numbers, I believe are extremely small," Gates said. "You do have the ability to limit that collateral damage more than with any other weapons system that you have."

The New America Foundation estimates that in Pakistan, between 1,953 and 3,279 people have been killed by drones since 2004 - and that between 18% and 23% of them were not militants. The nonmilitant casualty rate was down to about 10% in 2012, the group says.

In Yemen, the group estimates, between 646 and 928 people have been killed in a combination of drone strikes and airstrikes, and 623 to 860 of those killed were militants. Only about 2% of those killed have been high-level targets, the group said.

Gates' remarks came as the U.S. Senate considers the nomination of John Brennan to become the next CIA director. As Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, Brennan was a vocal advocate for using drones to target America's enemies.

Some lawmakers, along with human rights organizations and civil libertarians, have questioned the oversight procedures dictating the use of drones, particularly when they're used to target American citizens overseas. That was the case when New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki - who officials said played an operational role in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - was killed by a U.S. drone in 2011.

On Sunday, two senators decried the system currently used for deciding when to use drones to take out Americans overseas, saying it was a constitutional violation that demanded reform.

"It's very unseemly that a politician gets to decide the death of an American citizen," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said on CNN.

"There needs to be a trial for treason. The president, or a politician, Republican or Democrat, should never get to decide someone's death by flipping through flash cards," Paul continued.

"I don't know how often this will happen, but I agree with Rand Paul," said Angus King, the independent senator from Maine. He was elected in November and caucuses with the Democrats.

"The Fifth Amendment says that no person shall denied life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. These may be Americans that have committed treason by signing up with another country or another group against us, but it just makes me uncomfortable that the president, whoever it is, is the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, and the executioner, all rolled into one," he continued.

What's needed, King argued, is a check on the president's power that would retain the ability to order stealth surveillance and rapid action.

"Where there is time, go in, submit it to a third party, a court, in confidence, and get a judgment that there is sufficient evidence," King said. "Some say these people should have a whole trial. I don't believe that. But I think some independent check on the executive is healthy for our system."

That type of independent body should be considered, Gates said, if it gave Americans confidence the government was acting in good faith.

"Whether it's a panel of three judges or one judge or something that would give the American people confidence that there was, in fact, a compelling case to launch an attack against an American citizen - I think just as an independent confirmation or affirmation, if you will - is something worth giving serious consideration to," he said.

In hearings last week on Brennan's nomination to head the CIA, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said she would review ideas for legislation "to ensure that drone strikes are carried out in a manner consistent with our values," including a proposal to create a body that would review such strikes.

However, the intelligence panel has yet to begin drafting legislation, a Feinstein aide told CNN. For now, the panel is reading through proposals and suggestions by experts and commentators.

According to the aide, who spoke on condition of not being identified, writing a bill raised "a lot of questions to wrestle with." Consultations with the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees as well as the White House must occur before a final proposal can be developed, the aide added.

CNN's Pam Benson and Josh Levs contributed to this report.

Filed under: Angus King • Rand Paul • Robert Gates
soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. rs

    All of the DoD needs more oversight- especially that part that pays Halliburton (et al) outrageous fees for "providing services" the government can do better and cheaper.

    February 10, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  2. Anonymous

    "It's very unseemly that a politician gets to decide the death of an American citizen," Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, said on CNN."

    Rand Paul, huh? What took CNN so long to finger Paul as the opposition? He must be pandering to the due process people who would rather we had another 9/11 on our hands to cope with and who can't quite get around the fact that there are those around the world who would willingly murder us than work with us ... including some who ARE American born terrorists working right along side those other murderers who are not American born.

    February 10, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  3. They ought to change from the elephant to the hippo...

    Uh...Wasn't there a time in our history where Americans, shot other Americans who they considered traitors, without a a trial, Rand? Lasted several years... in the 1860s... Ring a bell? Perhaps some are still fighting it. If you take up arms against, or plot against the USA, giving aid and comfort to our enemies, be prepared... The consequences might not involve a trial.

    February 10, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  4. Marc

    Alternately, they could be concerned that everyone gets treated equally, including the people they disagree with. What happens when a politicia considers *you* a person who would "willingly murder us?" Wouldn't you rather have someone take a look at the evidence rather than just deciding to take you out?

    February 10, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  5. Anonymous

    "Wouldn't you rather have someone take a look at the evidence rather than just deciding to take you out?"

    Depends on if *I* the the person willingly ready to murder *you* by plotting treason against America actually had the cojones to worry about my due process rights that *I* an American committing treason ought not to expect, all things considered. Do you protect yourself against home invasion by asking questions of the home invader in a "are you planning to harm me, or are you not planning to harm me" process of elimination, ie... require proof beyond a reasonable doubt? I thought you folks wanted protection against the "bad" guys. Guess I was mistaken.

    February 10, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  6. vic , nashville ,tn

    To Sen. Rand Paul

    Drones killed top level terrorists, terrorists live in a densely populated areas its hard avoid nonmilitant casualty.

    February 10, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  7. Evergreen

    Oversight is always a good idea. However, when Paul states actions taken by the CIC to keep this country safe treason, I have to question whether calls for oversight is just attacking the president. People from around the world become American citizens every year. There might be a few who want to harm this Nation.

    February 10, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  8. ed

    More oversight will be really good. Right now, only Obama gets to pick and he is doing very little. Bipartisan support is always a good idea. Let it be bipartisan and there will be lot more targets and more action.

    February 10, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |