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Democratic Senator Questions Administration's Drone Program


Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, is one of those 11 senators that Carrie mentioned who've demanded the administration turn over secret documents about the operation against Anwar al-Awlaki. Senator Wyden also sent a letter last month to the White House counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, the president's nominee to run the CIA. And in that letter, he asked: How much evidence does the president need to determine that a particular American can be lawfully killed?

Senator Wyden joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: Thank you for having me on.

SIEGEL: And first, are your concerns about this issue so great that you would withhold your support or even oppose confirmation of Mr. Brennan as CIA director, depending on the answer?

WYDEN: I have never been one to announce my position before there's a hearing, but I want listeners to understand what the bottom line is here. The bottom line is the administration is essentially telling the Congress and the American people: Just trust us. And I just don't think that's the standard for oversight, and that I think that there's also a public right to know here. The American people have a right to know when their government believes that they can kill an individual as part of one of these operations.

SIEGEL: In that letter to John Brennan, you wrote, and I'm quoting: "There are clearly some circumstances in which the president has the authority to use lethal force against Americans who've taken up arms against the United States." Where would you draw the line between what is and what is not defensible?

WYDEN: Well, that, of course, is what the debate is all about. The administration has not made it possible for a member of the Intelligence Committee to draw a line simply because they have essentially stonewalled myself and other members of the committee now for more than two years. And after you listen to all of the rhetoric about transparency and accountability, their answers, basically, have no there, there.

SIEGEL: Let's take the most publicized case, which was that of Awlaki. Do you think that the evidence of his active role against the U.S. on behalf of a group that has declared war on the U.S. was sufficient to justify a strike against him? Or did the fact of his U.S. citizenship make that question more complicated, in your mind?

WYDEN: A member of Congress and a member of the intelligence committee is not allowed to talk specifically about any one case. I do want to stress - along the lines of what you talked about - where you would draw the line. Unless the members of the Intelligence Committee can actually see the legal authorities that the administration is citing, then a member of Congress is really not in a position to focus on where the line would be drawn.

SIEGEL: In Carrie Johnson's report just before we came on, Notre Dame law Professor Mary Ellen O'Connell said this: This is targeted killing memo that does for targeted killing what the Bush administration tried to do with respect to torture. Do you feel that's an apt parallel, and are you disappointed in the Democratic administration?

WYDEN: I have definitely hoped for more transparency and additional openness from this administration. And in many particulars, the issues we're talking about - frankly, across a range of intelligence policy issues - the position of this administration and the position of the Bush administration have been similar, particularly in line with this principle that I call just (unintelligible).

Now, certainly there have been areas where commendable changes have been put in place, such as the president's opposition to torture. But on the question we are talking about today, legal authority with respect to a targeted killing of an American, the policy today is really pretty much the same trust us policy of the Bush administration.

SIEGEL: Senator Wyden, thank you very much for talking with us today.

WYDEN: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, speaking with us from Annapolis, Maryland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.