WASHINGTON -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is not sure whether the public should be told when the federal government kills an American citizen.
"Maybe. It just depends," she said in an interview with The Huffington Post this week, when asked whether the administration should acknowledge when it targets a U.S. citizen in a drone strike.
Pelosi disputed the assertion that Democrats are less critical of the drone program than they would have been if George W. Bush were still president, arguing, "Those opposed are pretty critical, and other people are just listening to see what this is and why this is necessary, because we're in a different world."
But she also hinted at another reason that the administration may be getting the benefit of the doubt from some lawmakers: Polls.
"It's interesting how popular it is in the public," she said, recalling that the same polling dynamic prevailed during the fight over warrantless wiretaps. "People just want to be protected. And I saw that when we were fighting them on surveillance, the domestic surveillance. People just want to be protected: 'You go out there and do it. I'll criticize you, but I want to be protected.'"
The Obama administration currently takes the position that it can essentially disappear U.S. citizens. It is never under any legal obligation to admit, even after the deed is done, that it has assassinated anyone.
Pelosi appeared conflicted over whether it was acceptable for the administration to simply disappear American citizens, a term that had previously been used as a verb only outside the United States.
"It depends on the situation," she said. "Maybe it depends on the timing, because that's right -- it's all about timing, imminence. What is it that could be in jeopardy if people know that happened at this time? I just don't know."
A hard-nosed politician, Pelosi knows how to read polls. And when it comes to drones, the numbers aren't pretty. The Huffington Post has surveyed the issue, and found that 54 percent of respondents support killing people suspected of being high-level members of al Qaeda, while 18 percent oppose the idea. That drops to a 43-27 margin if the suspect is an American citizen, but in both cases opposition is low.
But some real ambivalence underlies that apparent consensus. When asked whether they would still back the program if they knew civilians were at risk, more people say they oppose than support it. Reports vary, but at a minimum, hundreds of civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.
The American public is also not supportive of targeting people simply because they are members of al Qaeda, rather than senior commanders. A New America Foundation report found that only 2 percent of the thousands killed by drone strikes have been high-level operatives.
On matters of life and death, however, politicians shouldn't be driven by polls, said former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who was known as the conscience of the Congress before he lost reelection in the last cycle.
"Polls, schmolls. What if you asked the public, does the government have the right to summarily execute you if they think you have committed a crime? You take that poll and you see what kind of answer you get," he told The Huffington Post Wednesday. "The questions that are being asked are being asked to try to justify the policy."
Kucinich led the effort in the House to challenge the use of drones. One of the other members who was the most critical, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), has also left office. In December 2012, they teamed up in an attempt to force the administration to reveal its legal justification for the program.
"It's morally abhorrent, it's objectionable and I don't care if it's politically popular or not," Kucinich said. "You can find a lot of things in the past that were politically popular that after further consideration the public decided [were] morally repugnant."
When asked if the Obama administration should share more information with the public on the drone program, Pelosi replied, "Oh, I don't know," noting that some of the information hasn't even been shared with Congress.
Last week, Obama authorized the Justice Department to share legal opinions on drones with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. The move came after NBC News published a leaked white paper on the matter that said officials could strike if "an operational leader present[s] an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States." Other sections of the memo only referred to a "member" of a terrorist organization.
According to Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), there are a total of 11 legal memos on drones. Certain senators have so far seen four of them; the rest have not been disclosed. Lawmakers on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees are now pressing the administration to allow them access to the memos as well.
Pelosi did argue that there are still too many unanswered questions.
"I do think more needs to be known," she said, underscoring that she believes there needs to be a strong oversight role for Congress. "What do they mean by imminence, what do they mean by due process or judicial process? There are a number of questions here, and if people are really interested in it, they owe the issue time."
Kucinich said there needs to be much more than oversight.
"Congress has to weigh in here and stop this. And it's not like, we'll meet with the Intelligence Committee. Baloney! The Intelligence Committee isn't the consistory of cardinals," he said, adding, "They may love America, but this is a question that goes much deeper than whether or not a few people in Congress are being informed. We're close to a constitutional crisis where the administration just decides, on its own, to kill people."
Pelosi was conflicted, describing the programs both in terms of core values, but also worrying that the American people would not forgive officials who could have possibly prevented an attack and didn't.
"I don't know the American people want [the administration] to say, when in doubt, we decided that it wasn't that imminent, and boom, we get hit again. It's hard," said Pelosi. "It's not an easy thing, especially when you see that the values on the other side are not there. This is their life's work to go to heaven -- not to put down their beliefs, but the fact is, we don't have a shared respect for life."
But the United States can't claim to be the one showing respect for life, Kucinich argued.
"This is murder dressed up as statecraft, and I'm not buying it," argued Kucinich. "And anyone who calls themselves a good American shouldn't be buying it. This is not what the country should be about. We have an obligation to defend ourselves, but this takes the golden rule -- do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- and it inverts it. Do unto others before they do unto you. That's our new moral code here."
Sam Stein contributed reporting.
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