Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking on CNN's "State… (Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Sunday said there should be an outside check on the power of a president to order drone strikes on U.S. citizens.
Gates, a former CIA director who served as Defense chief under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, said decisions to execute Americans should be subject to some outside review, perhaps by a panel of judges or by Congress.
“I think that the rules and the practices that the Obama administration has followed are quite stringent and are not being abused,” said Gates, speaking with Candy Crowley on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But who is to say about a future president?”
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The debate over the Obama administration’s use of drones intensified last week with the Senate confirmation hearing of John Brennan, the president’s counter-terrorism chief, as head of the CIA.
Obama has dramatically stepped up the use of drones to attack suspected terrorists in the Middle East. An administration legal memo recently made public argues that the president has wide authority to kill Americans who are suspected of plotting with Al Qaeda.
Last week, Obama agreed to allow the Senate and House Intelligence Committees to review classified legal memos used to justify the drone strike in 2011 that killed Anwar Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who became an Al Qaeda leader in Yemen.
Gates also said that he was a “big advocate” of drones, explaining they are more precise than other weapons.
“You're not saying that innocent people do not die,” Crowley said.
“No, but I'm saying that you have, first of all, the numbers, I believe, are extremely small,” Gates replied. “And second, you do have the ability to limit that collateral damage more than with any other weapons system that you have.”
The stepped-up pace of the drone strikes -- 3,000 people have been killed in the last four years, including three Americans along with the lack of any oversight or review have unsettled some members of Congress, who are pushing for more explanation of the legal rationale behind the attacks. During his hearing, Brennan expressed doubts that judicial review was suitable for ordering the drone attacks, which he called “an inherently executive-branch function."
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The question of whether there should be oversight of the targeted attacks drew sharply different reactions from members of Congress on Sunday.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, said the policy is evolving and promised hearings to figure out how to “mesh the constitutional principles and values to the new mode of war.”
"We are in a different kind of war. We're not sending troops. We're not sending manned bombers. We're dealing with the enemy where we find them to keep America safe,” Durbin said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
On the CNN show Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he wasn’t in favor of executing citizens without a trial on treason charges.
“If you're an American citizen, you go overseas, you take up arms -- I'm probably for executing you, but I would want to hear the evidence, I would want to have a judge and a jury,” he said. “It can be fairly swift, but there needs to be a trial for treason. The president, a politician, Republican or Democrat, should never get to decide someone's death by flipping through flash cards, and say, ‘Do you want to kill him? I don't know. Yeah, let's go ahead and kill him.’”
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, said he agreed that there should be a check on that executive power. "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 said.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said the administration may be relying too much on drone strikes. "We are losing a lot of opportunities out there to actually extract people and get information," he said. "Human intelligence is really much more important than taking out individual targets."
Others said they opposed creating a panel that, in the words of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), would be "an encroachment on the powers of the president."
"But what we need to do is take the whole program out of the hand of the Central Intelligence Agency and put it into the Department of Defense, where you have adequate oversight," McCain said, speaking on “Fox News Sunday.” "Since when is the intelligence agency supposed to be an air force of drones that goes around killing people?"
McCain also noted what he called "a strange conundrum."