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FBI director nominee: drones shouldn't target citizens in US, except possibly 'imminent threats'

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FBI dir nominee James Comey testifies (Credit: Senate Judiciary Committee)
FBI dir nominee James Comey testifies (Credit: Senate Judiciary Committee)

The man handpicked by President Obama to take over as director of the FBI, James Comey, told senators in a hearing today that he did not think drones should be used to kill US citizens in America, but left the door open for cases of "imminent threats." Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) was the one who posed the question and who added the caveat, asking: "Do you believe that the Constitution allows the United States government to use a drone to target with lethal force a US citizen on US soil, if that individual does not pose an imminent threat?" Cruz asked. "No, senator," Comey responded. Neither man attempted to define precisely what circumstances would constitute an "imminent threat," but the fact that there could be some cases where a drone strike would be considered legal on US soil is worrisome for those Americans looking for ironclad protections against such use of force.

The issue of the government's use of drones on US soil is a pressing one, given that the outgoing FBI director, Robert Mueller, just revealed to lawmakers last month that the agency is conducting drone surveillance in the country. Comey will be taking over from Mueller if confirmed next week, as Mueller is set to retire in September after a 12-year stint at the head of the agency. But lawmakers didn't press Comey any further on the FBI's specific use of drones, nor did they inquire further about their broader legality, despite the fact that US Attorney General Eric Holder has not ruled out the possibility of drone strikes on US soil.

"It's certainly something that lies in our future if not in our present."

Instead, the hearing shifted to the FBI's investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects, but drones came up again later, only this time, the questions came from Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI), about how the FBI under Comey would deal with the influx of commercial and civilian-controlled drones taking place. "With the expansion of civilian use of drones, do you have any security concerns about criminals or terrorists using drones to conduct surveillance of potential targets?" Hirono asked. "I do, even as a private citizen reading about the increasing availability of drones," Comey answered. "I watched what to me was a sobering video of someone who had put a firearm on a drone and fired it remotely while flying one of this cheaply acquired drones, a hundred-dollar drone. It's certainly something that lies in our future if not in our present." The video Comey was referring to was probably one that circulated widely in June. Asked whether there were drone-specific laws regulating such activities, Comey said he wasn't sure, but pointed out that homicide or attempted homicide laws would certainly apply.

"I don't know the details of the programs involving metadata."

Hirono also returned to the issue that had been expected to dominate the hearing, that of the FBI and NSA's mass surveillance of US phone records. "Regardless of the legality or constitutionality of a given surveillance program, do you believe that government surveillance of US citizens go too far?" Senator Hirono asked. "I'm sure there are circumstances in which it could, senator," Comey said. "Where do we draw the line at going too far?" Hirono followed up. "Hard for me to answer from this vantage point," Comey said. "I don't know. I'm a private citizen at this point. I don't know the details of the programs involving metadata, for example, that are going on right now." The hearing concluded around 1PM EST, but lawmakers have till next week to file written questions to Comey. Hopefully, more drone policy questions will be asked.