Ex-Pentagon chief says checks needed on drone strikes

WASHINGTON -- Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that 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 was defense secretary under Presidents Barack 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," Gates said on CNN's "State of the Union." "But who is to say about a future president?"

Obama has increased the use of drones to attack terrorists in the Middle East. Last week, the debate over the administration's use of drones intensified during the Senate confirmation hearing for John Brennan, the president's counterterrorism chief, to head the CIA.

An administration legal memo recently made public argues that the president has wide authority to kill Americans who are suspected of plotting with al-Qaida. Obama agreed last week to allow the Senate and House intelligence committees to review classified legal memos used to justify the drone strike in 2011 that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who became an al-Qaida leader in Yemen.

Gates did say that he was a "big advocate" of drones, describing them as more precise than other weapons. He said the number of innocent people harmed is "extremely small." "You do have the ability to limit that collateral damage more than with any other weapons system that you have," he said.

The increased pace of drone strikes -- 3,000 people have been killed in four years, including three Americans -- and the lack of review has unsettled some members of Congress, who are pushing for more explanation of the legal rationale behind the attacks.

Brenna, at his hearing, expressed doubt that judicial review was suitable for drone attacks, which he called "an inherently executive branch function."

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he didn't see the need for more legal protections for Americans who work with terrorist groups overseas.

"If you join forces with the enemy, you lose your constitutional protections," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "When you do that, you sacrifice your rights."

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