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House Intel chair on White House drone policy: 'There is oversight'


Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., called the White House's legal footing on a policy allowing drone strikes on American civilians "solid" in an interview with Andrea Mitchell Wednesday. Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee Chair, countered a frequent criticism of the Obama administration's drone powers, attesting that "there is oversight."

The Obama administration's drone policy, long a controversial tenet of the evolving military campaign against terror networks, holds that it is legal to target American citizens via drone strikes if they are believed to be "senior operational leaders" of al-Qaeda or "an associated force," even if the government lacks evidence that the person is part of an active, imminent plot, according to a confidential Justice Department memo obtained by NBC News Monday.

Rogers, a former F.B.I. special agent, supported the legal theory outlined in the D.O.J. memo, though he pushed for greater transparency by calling on the White House to release the original legal document.

"I mean, [al-Qaeda] is a deadly organization writ large, and it's deadly when you get people like this who are planning this aggressively events. And the goal here is to have, you know, zero civilian collateral damage or casualties. You know, it's not perfect, but I will tell you, it's exceptionally good at making sure that that doesn't happen. And I know that because, again, we're briefed on all of this, including the ability for the ordinance to do certain things and not do certain things. So air strikes are a tool. Our policy is we will go after al Qaeda wherever they are before they can strike the United States. I think this is a part of that. And I think the legal basis conclusion of which they came to is a solid one.""...[The administration is] arguing that this is an internal document for president's advice and counsel. I completely disagree with it because it's the last foundation of what they used to justify it. So I passionately disagree with their reason for not providing us the actual legal opinion. They gave us this summary. We received it, I think, back in June.  It is clear where they're going.  I think they should produce this legal document.  I don't think they should hold back any more. Obviously it's going to come up in the Brennan hearings. They should produce that document for both of the intelligence committees."

Rogers pointed to American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the mastermind behind the Christmas Day 2009 plot to blow up an airliner over Detroit.  Al-Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.

"This is somebody who had said that he didn't want his U.S. citizenship anymore. He had officially joined al Qaeda. Al Qaeda had declared war on the United States," Rogers told Mitchell. "You don't just kill the enemy when they're at the gate.  You try to make sure that you get them before they even get close to having an operation that could kill Americans.  That's the whole safety net that we try to produce anywhere in the world.  And so there isn't some long list of Americans.  I can candidly tell you that. "

In al-Awlaki's case, the U.S. had intelligence of his involvement in the bomb plot, and carried out the drone strike after the plot had come to fruition. Critics point out that other cases may not be so clear.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the ACLU, told NBC News that the memo "recognizes some limits on the authority it sets out, but the limits are elastic and vaguely defined." Jaffer said the memo “redefines the word imminence in a way that deprives the word of its ordinary meaning.”

The issue is expected to play heavily into John Brennan's confirmation hearing to become the next Central Intelligence Agency Director Thursday. In a speech last year, Brennan was the first Obama administration official to publicly acknowledge the use of drone strikes. Rogers predicted "at the end of the day, he gets confirmed for the position."