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US Lawmakers Seek Answers on Legality of Domestic Drone Strikes

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testifies on Capitol Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, March 6, 2013.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder testifies on Capitol Hill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, March 6, 2013.
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Michael Bowman
— For years, the United States has used drone aircraft to attack suspected terrorists in other nations.  Now, America’s top law enforcement official has not entirely ruled out a president ordering drone strikes on U.S. soil.  

Attorney General Eric Holder testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee amid a firestorm on Capitol Hill over presidential authority in times of crisis. 

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy posed this question:

“Can you agree there is no scenario where it would be appropriate to use an armed drone on U.S. soil to strike an American citizen?”

Holder’s response was less than definitive.

“The government has no intention to carry out any drone strikes in the United States,"he said. "It is hard for me to imagine a situation in which that would occur.  We have within the United States the ability to use our law enforcement capacity.”

The “no intention” assertion does not satisfy Republican Rand Paul, who took to the Senate floor moments later.  Paul noted that Holder speaks for President Barack Obama on legal matters.

“The president says, ‘I have not killed anyone yet,'" said Paul. "He goes on to say, ‘I have no intention of killing Americans, but I might.’  Is that enough?  Are we satisfied by that?”

In a letter to Senator Paul made public Tuesday, Holder said the only conceivable scenario where a president might order a military strike on U.S. soil would be an extraordinary circumstance like the 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. 

At the hearing, the attorney general repeatedly said it would not be “appropriate” to order a strike on a terror suspect spotted eating in a café or walking down a street.  Holder said regular law enforcement can be used to apprehend suspects in non-emergency situations.

Lawmakers urged the Obama administration to fully disclose its thinking on this issue. 

“American citizens have a right to understand when their life can be taken by their government, absent due process," said Republican Senator Chuck Grassley.

That sentiment was echoed by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, who serves on the Judiciary Committee and is chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

“Our job is vigorous oversight of the intelligence community," she said. "We cannot do this unless we see the legal underpinnings for certain kinds of activities, particularly clandestine activities.”

Holder said he expects President Obama to personally address the topic in coming months. Administration officials are already on record defending drone strikes outside the United States, including the killing of U.S. citizens believed to be plotting attacks from afar.

Concern over the drone program has delayed Senate confirmation of President Obama’s pick to head the CIA, former counterterrorism advisor John Brennan.

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