President Obama’s nominee to head the FBI told senators that he opposed the use of drones to kill Americans inside the United States unless they qualified as “imminent threats” to the security of the homeland.
At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 9, prospective FBI director James Comey (photo shown in inset) testified that targeting U.S. citizens for drone assassination should be an option only when they are “imminent threats,” although he failed to define that crucial term.
Comey’s comment came in response to a question by freshman Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Cruz, a consistent defender of individual rights, asked Comey if he believed “that the Constitution allows the United States government to use a drone to target with lethal force a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, if that individual does not pose an imminent threat.” Comey responded that he did not believe it did.
There are a couple of problems with that exchange. First, Senator Cruz should have tailored that question much more narrowly, preventing Comey from theorizing a scenario where an American could be killed by a drone piloted by an agent of the federal government.
Second, Comey’s terse response (he answered a simple “no” to the question Cruz put to him) presaged the possibility not only that an American could be targeted for a drone strike, but also that the justification for a death resulting from such a strike could be hidden behind a haze of vague language and slippery standards.
Comey comes by his imprecision honestly. At a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee in June, outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller testified that his agency has used drones to monitor American citizens within the United States. Using typically ill-defined language, Mueller qualified the admission by saying the unmanned aerial vehicles have been used in only a “very, very minimal way.”
During his testimony it seemed Mueller was almost coining words in order to dramatically downplay the use of drones in the FBI’s domestic surveillance. “And I will tell you that our footprint is very small. We have very few and of limited use and we’re exploring not only the use but also the necessary guidelines for that use,” he testified.
Mueller’s testimony was the first time that the FBI admitted deploying drones to monitor citizens. The key word in that last sentence being “admitted.”
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