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National Security Insiders: It's Possible for Congress to Oversee Drone Program

A narrow majority says Chuck Hagel will be a good Defense secretary.

Sixty-one percent of National Journal's National Security Insiders say it's possible for members of Congress to conduct proper oversight of drone strikes, even as senators — including those cleared to know details as members of the Intelligence Committee — complain the Obama administration has stonewalled their requests for information on the targeted-killing program.

"Oversight is critical, whether the issue is covert actions or drone strikes," one Insider said, "and it needs to extend to Defense Department operations of drone strikes as well. America should have no appetite for secret wars; it is a long-standing struggle in congressional-executive relations. It led to unhappy experiences in the early years of the Cold War."


The White House recently told the Senate Intelligence Committee it would provide legal opinions from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel related to the targeted killing of American citizens. "Congressional intelligence committees have a long record of effectively overseeing covert actions while protecting their sensitivity, and these skills will be applicable to ensuring accountability of drone strikes.”

Some Insiders, even as they stressed oversight is possible, cast doubt on the extent to which Congress should be involved. "Congress's oversight should be periodic reviews — not daily operational reviews," one Insider said. Another added: "Congress cannot and should not micromanage."

Others cautioned that lawmakers would need to assert themselves on this issue to achieve oversight responsibilities. It is possible for Congress to keep the executive branch in check, an Insider said, only if members “are willing to use their constitutional power of the purse to enforce their oversight of defense and intelligence programs.”


Another 39 percent said proper oversight from Congress is not possible. "Congressional oversight is usually an oxymoron. The institution lacks the expertise and accountability to objectively evaluate these issues, and they're divided along partisan lines," one Insider said. "We need an external blue ribbon commission to take a look at what can/cannot be said/done."

Congress is a political animal, another Insider added. "Regrettably, details on drone strikes given to the Senate will inevitably be leaked and made public. This is one of the reasons the framers of the Constitution made the president the commander in chief of the armed forces."

Separately, Insiders were deeply divided about whether Chuck Hagel, after a tough confirmation battle, would prove to be a good Defense secretary, with 53 percent having faith in the Republican former Nebraska senator. "Chuck Hagel has given most of his life to serving this nation, first as an infantryman, a top [Veterans Administration] official, later as a senator, and now as [Defense secretary]. He'll do great," one Insider said.

Another Insider said it is possible he would succeed as secretary, though it's "too early to tell if he will earn respect of uniformed military as they manage budget reductions and recraft the force." Others pointed to external factors. "It all depends on whether the exit from Afghanistan is smooth or messy, and whether he manages to trigger a new war in Africa as a result of drones and Africa Command," one Insider said.


A 47 percent faction said Hagel would not be a good Defense secretary. "He will be the weakest political secretary in memory, and this will reduce his authority and influence at a time when working with Congress is most critical," one Insider said.

Hagel will not succeed "unless he can overcome a subpar public confirmation hearing, which is highly unlikely," another Insider said. "Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, Secretary Hagel's failure to be adequately prepared for his confirmation made him look incredibly weak and unfocused. The military is an arena in which thorough preparation is the key to success, whether in combat or on a staff. His failure to meet that threshold means that it will be exceedingly difficult for him to lead hard-charging senior officers by example."

1. Is it possible for members of Congress to conduct proper oversight of drone strikes?

(54 votes)

  • Yes  61%
  • No 39%


"The problem is not remotely piloted aircraft or targeted killing. The problem is that the [Authorization for Use of Military Force] needs revision and new understanding. It may well be more limited."

"I would prefer the establishment of a special federal court to perform oversight, but a special joint committee of Congress could do it as well. The executive branch should not be trusted to police itself in this matter."

"Congress can add or reduce guidelines and require periodic briefings on strikes completed and planned."

"Hard but not impossible."

"It is always possible to put protocols in place that both parties agree to that solve the political power issue. However, we may have entered an era with technologies that the Constitution could not anticipate. While this could have been said about the telegraph, telephone, and television, the difference now is immediacy and the inability to attribute clearly the threat within the window to act — a conundrum for sure."

"Possible, yes. Whether it actually would do so even without being stonewalled on documents is a different question."

"Of course they can. But they have to work at it."

"Oversight in the general sense of policy and strategy, assuming it resists any urge to control specific targets or operations."

"Yes, but they will have to truly exercise that oversight by demanding the executive branch produce legal justifications before policies of this type are implemented, not afterward. Over the last few decades, Congress has become more passive in its exercise of oversight responsibilities. Overseeing the implementation of policies on drone strikes may enable Congress to once again fulfill some of its constitutional obligations."

"Yes, so long as there is real cooperation and transparency."


"In this political environment? You must be kidding!"

"The Congress's failure to enforce the War Powers Act manifests their failure to assert any significant responsibility for [U.S. government] kinetic actions."

"There is an old game in this town: The [executive branch] plays hide the ball from the Congress. That is not likely to change. Full disclosure is an oxymoron."

"Real-time oversight is simply impossible."

2. After a tough confirmation battle, will Chuck Hagel prove to be a good Defense secretary?

(54 votes)

  • Yes  53%
  • No 47%


"Hope springs eternal."

"Now the shoe is on the other foot and members of the Senate should look to their relations with [the Defense secretary]."

"If the measurement is implementing Obama's agenda. DOD will follow the commander in chief, and his representative."

"There is no reason to believe he won't. That said, even senior leaders can benefit from communications training."

"That the confirmation process was a farce is not Hagel's fault."

"The Defense Department is better than any other department at new leader assimilation, and unlike other departments, insubordination is a serious offense quickly and severely punishable."

"Good in the sense that he will carry out his boss's direction. Hard to imagine good in any other sense."


"Unlikely — he is thoroughly mediocre. There's a reason that so many people, especially his former staff from the Hill, cannot stand him?"

"We'll see whether Senator Hagel can master the details of defense policy, but given his performance in testimony, I have my doubts."

"Unfortunately, Hagel's awful performance before the Armed Services Committee raised serious questions about competence ... and did nothing to address longstanding questions about his out-of-the-mainstream views."

"Never send a senator to do a hard bureaucratic job running one of the largest orgs in the world — especially during a drawdown."

National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign policy experts. They include:

Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.

This article appears in the March 12, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.

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