Brennan skeptical of checks on targeted killing

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Special courts to authorize the targeted killing of American citizens are worth considering, John Brennan, the nominee for CIA director, said Feb. 7, but he was also quick to criticize the idea.

A targeted killing, such as through a drone strike, is "an inherently executive branch function," because it's a decision "made on the battlefield," Brennan told the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearing.

Courts, Brennan argued, make determinations about past actions, but it should be up to the executive branch to judge whether someone poses a grave enough threat to the ongoing security of the United States, he said.

"The concept I understand, and we have wrestled with this, in terms of whether there can be a FISA-like court," but the executive branch needs to be able to act if it deems a threat serious and imminent, Brennan said. The court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act oversees surveillance warrants related to national security.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pushed back against Brennan's argument. "A soldier on a battlefield doesn't have time to go to court, but if you're planning a strike over a matter of days, weeks or months, there is an opportunity to at least go to some outside-of-the-executive-branch body, like the FISA court," and offer evidence that the American citizen being targeted is indeed an enemy combatant, King said.

"At least that would be some check on the activities of the executive," he added. King also asked the CIA to be more open with its congressional overseers, because "there is no one else watching."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked Brennan if American citizens should get the chance to surrender if the U.S. government is considering a strike against them. But Brennan said that members of al Qaeda know the United States is at war with the group, and so any of its members should know that the United States is willing to use lethal force against them.

Brennan and the senators spent nearly the entirety of the three-hours-long hearing discussing issues related to counterterrorism, including the CIA's detention and interrogation policies. But Brennan said that, if confirmed, he'd look to ensure that the CIA hasn't lost track of its other responsibilities.

"What I need to take a look at is whether or not there has been too much of an emphasis on the CT front," he said. "We have to make sure that we're not going to be surprised on the strategic front."

He also said the agency needs to make sure it has adapted to the modern world. The Arab Spring, "didn't lend itself to traditional types of intelligence collection. There were things that were happening in a populist way [where] having somebody well-positioned somewhere who can provide us information is not going to give us that insight," he said.

For more:
- watch the hearing on C-SPAN

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