Ex-Pentagon chief backs oversight on drone strikes

Updated
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen (R) testify during a hearing before the Senate Armed...
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen (R) testify during a hearing before the Senate Armed...
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates defended the Obama administration’s targeted killings through drone strikes, but on Sunday added that judicial oversight on the program “is something worth giving serious consideration to.”

During an interview that aired on CNN’s State of the Union, Gates, a self-described “big advocate of drones,” made the case for third-party checks on the president’s power of “being able to execute, in effect,” an American citizen on the grounds of suspected links to terrorist groups.

“I think some check on the president’s ability to do this has merit as we look to the long-term future,” he said.

Gates, who served under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, called for a court of federal judges to oversee what he characterized as a “compelling case…to launch an attack against an American citizen.” He went on to downplay the current administration’s record on targeted killings, indicating that the need for greater transparency and oversight was for Obama’s successors in the Oval Office.

“The practices that the Obama administration has followed are quite stringent and are not being abused,” Gates said. “But who is to say about a future president?”

In a confidential Justice Department memo unearthed by NBC News’ Michael Isikoff this week, the U.S. government justified the legal grounds of killing American citizens believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaida.

“The condition that an operational  leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” the memo states.

The 16-page memo was released ahead of the Senate confirmation hearings of White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who was a key architect in mapping out the nation’s drone program. At the hearing, the potential CIA director insisted that targeted killings should be “a last resort to save lives when is there is no other alternative.”

Ex-Pentagon chief backs oversight on drone strikes

Updated