Hardball | February 06, 2013
>>> war on drones. let's play "hardball."
>>> good evening. i'm chris matthews in washington. let me start tonight with this. just a day before the president's chief counterterrorism adviser john brennan heads to capitol hill for his confirmation hearing to take over the cia, the white house has to answer some tough questions about its overseas drone program. the catalyst is a leaked white house memo obtained by nbc's michael isikoff that justifies in certain cases attacks on american citizens abroad. the white house has forced strong criticisms from advocates over the drone policy. ron wyden tweeted today every american has the right to know when the government believes it is allowed to kill them. what's surprising people is how much most americans seem to casually accept this as the cost of doing business in a dangerous world. eugene robbins is a columnist and david corn is from mother jones . both are msnbc political analysts. let's take a look here at ed carney, the president's spokesman, talk about this. it was a briefing today and carney defended the president's position on drones but also faced some tough questions. let's listen.
>> i won't talk about specific instances, but the fact is that the methods that we use are designed specifically to avoid civilian casualties . i think it's fair to say that far fewer civilians lose their lives in an effort to go after senior leadership in al qaeda along the lines we were discussing here as opposed to an effort to invade a country with hundreds of thousands of troops and take towns.
>> why are you dancing around the question of whether or not we kill civilians? why won't the government admit?
>> i don't think i'm dancing around it. i didn't dispute it.
>> you didn't necessarily --
>> what i can't do --
>> civilians have been killed, right?
>> i don't disagree with that.
>> okay, gene. you've written about this. you're on the inside of their thinking. what are they saying besides that about why we have to use drones?
>> first of all that people ought to be asking questions. because this is the way it is now and not the way it used to be. and they say, look. we have to do counterterrorism. we didn't ask to, but we have to. we've come very close to some serious attacks, and the capabilities of drones now are such that this is our best weapon. so they think they absolutely have to use drones. but there are a lot of questions that ought to be asked. and one of them is should there be some sort of judicial oversight , something like the fisa court ?
>> yeah. doesn't that throw the hot potato to another individual who has to make judgment and that person would be appointed as well.
>> especially when you're talking about a u.s. citizen , i think it's not unreasonable to say and it would be my opinion that there ought to be another set of eyes on it. and of course it's at the white house . you can convince yourself of a lot of things.
>> i understand this. look. here's the question. it seems we have a limited arsenal of what to do. we find out somewhere in yemen or saudi or somewhere in the world , pakistan for example, we understand there's an activity that's basically a group of people putting together a plan to attack us. we have three means of stopping that. we can use the drones which are amazing. we can use a s.e.a.l. team attack. men go in and attack and kill people then leave by helicopter i guess. or invade the country and go to war. or you do nothing. i don't know anybody in either political party of any persuasion that down the road will be able to stand up and say i knew the enemy was planning stuff, i knew who they were, i refused to ask because i was squeamish. in the end you have to choose. you have to choose something to do.
>> this week particularly we're rolling a couple of different issues together. there's the issue of whether to use a drone to attack an american civilian. that's what the memo was about that our pal mikist cough revealed.
>> where are are you on that?
>> i think the memo did not make a strong enough case on imminence -- as long as there's one informed high level official, that's not good enough. i'm with gene. you got to have --
>> what about the principle? do we have the right to kill a person who's decided to be against their country? do we have the right?
>> i think if you find someone operationally involved in terrorist activity or terrorist group that is active and has the ability to strike, yes. it's a high standard .
>> in other words, a soldier on the other side.
>> not someone who's just a propagandist but someone involved in some operational way --
>> so to the blog sites somewhere in the world that's putting anti-american attitudes, you can't kill them.
>> on the issue of principle, did we have the right to kill benedict arnold ?
>> sure. and the case is in yemen , the american citizen who was planning attacks who had plotted at least a couple that we know of, very active. high ranking in al qaeda . and we killed him with a drone. so i shed no tears for him. and i think nobody else does. the fact he's an american citizen doesn't bother me. what does bother me is bit, though, is that there's no structure. there's no process that goes beyond the --
>> what abuse are you concerned about? gene?
>> well, look.
>> let's say it's a murky case. it's a cleric, just a propagandist. if it's that, you wouldn't go along with that.
>> you can have the highest regard for the people in the white house . president obama , brennan. but you can realize they're only going to be there for three more years. we're setting precedence. this is the way warfare is going to be. this is the way counterterrorism is going to be. this is a weapon. they make the point that this is a flexible, very useful, valuable weapon that --
>> what's wrong with trusting the judgment of people around obama and not trusting the judgment or the values of people around saying dick cheney ?
>> you can't take it back.
>> if you give the power to -- if you give the power to this president, then you expect the next president to have more powers. so you need something to frame. and i would say the case about the american citizens is very kind of an outliar. it's going to happen from time to time. that's not the core of this. i commend everybody to read the front page story of "the new york times" about the use of drones --
>> let's go the difference between a drone attack and a s.e.a.l. attack? what's the difference? a manned and unmanned attack? there's more americans getting killed obviously.
>> if you read "the new york times" story this morning, it talks about instances where clerics who wanted to work with the united states got killed in the same attack and the amount of resentment that's being engendered.
>> what do we do?
>> what do you do? perhaps in some cases you have to put more of your own blood at risk and go in with a s.e.a.l. attack where there is less possibility of getting it wrong or having collateral damage .
>> how would you judge that -- no, david. you're sitting here. what would you do if you were president or a commander in chief, same thing, or general or cia director . and you choose whether we send in 20 guys, we're going to lose 5 or 10. if we use a drone, we'll kill five family members.
>> commanders make those decisions all the time. and they're damn difficult to make. if you look at what's happening in yemen now, you have whole villages that literally watch the drones for days above them. and they see them as signals and messages of america power or arrogance and they realize that they're going to come down and strike somebody there. and it may hit them as well. and that has a real potential --
>> where is that happening right now?
>> in yemen . you've got to weigh those things in.
>> i'm somewhat less concerned about what has happened today than what's going to happen in the future. and i really think that's -- so my issue is not so much that the decision was made to go after ai law key.
>> what should be the protocol?
>> i think what they do is fine but there should be something like the fisa court that can -- look. as a practical matter, it's going to rubber stamp most of what the white house wants to do.
>> and this would be like going to a judge for a warrant.
>> right. there can be an outlier. there can be a case in which --
>> the interesting thing --
>> a dispassionate observer decides, you know, this is not fairly right. this is too close a call. and i would like --
>> you would like to have a dialogue where someone says are you sure there's an actual terrorist plot here? your intelligence could be your standard?
>> there's a whole conversation about imminence and what does imminence mean. and i get imminence doesn't mean the hijackers are boarding the planes. it's way ahead of that. but there's --
>> there's a benefit to having a fisa court too. i know people that worked on the fisa court . it makes the people coming to the court -- this is when you get wiretaps. it makes them do their job better. they have to meet certain standards.
>> i like this. we're raising a lot of questions here. one is is there a terrorist attack at foot? is there an american involved? and how do you trade off civilian casualties , collateral damage if you want to call it that, and american casualties? mike rogers chair of the house intelligence committee defended the president today and he's a republican. he said that anwar allah key zvshed to be killed. and he countered the criticism that there's no oversight of the program. let's listen to him.
>> this is somebody who had said that he didn't want his u.s. citizenship anymore. he had officially joined al qaeda . al qaeda he did claired war on the united states . once you made that choice, you no longer get the protections you would. if you've joined the enemy overseas, you've joined the enemy overseas and we're going to fight them. we have oversight into it. i knew about the operations. the targeting sets all of that leading up to it including very shortly thereafter. and i review all of the air strikes that we use under this title of the law.
>> well, that's a good interview for andrea to get that guy. he says once the guy's turned and it's manifestly so, it's easier for us. it's easier for us.
>> it is. but it's not just about policy. it is about procedures. and so the memo yesterday had a lot of troubling aspects to it. as we talked about yesterday throughout the network. and so if you want to do these things and if you could make a good argument, then you should have a good procedure that reinforces that so there is some what of a semblance --
>> tomorrow john brennan , will he hit on this tomorrow?
>> you'll hear a lot about this on the hearings. i don't think he'll get beat up that much. but people will ask questions they ought to ask. he has talked about this to the extent he can.
>> there's one big issue described by people in the white house .
>> i'd trust you running a fisa court . i would. i'm not sure just some judge doing family court -- i want to know the person that has sensitivity about what america needs for its defense and what we need to protect our constitution. both.
>> it's just having an unbudsman type person overseeing this saying bring me better intelligence, let's double check. and in some administrations you can trust that perhaps more than in others. so it's good to have an independent look.
>> i'd like to see a strong leech of dick cheney .
>> i know. he'll be back.
>> you got a good briefing. you don't need a briefing.
>>> when we come back, the republican party 's rebuilding year. joe scarborough is struggling with trying to rebuild the party. this is "hardball," the place for