I don't buy the notion that there's an extensive "controversy" over the use of unmanned drones (or as I like to think of them... robot planes) being used to hunt down and kill identified terrorists, even when the terrorists turn out to be American citicizens. The lack of controversy is not because I think there's nothing to be upset about... but because this is another one of those issues where everyone had an opinion going into it, and not much changed in the past couple of weeks when various "dramatic" revelations seeped out. "Controversy," I think, kind of requires at least some of us to be shocked into changing our minds when new information is revealed.
Along these lines, I think a lot of liberals aren't so much upset about drones as they are, still, not really thrilled about anything the CIA does, ever. Or even with the idea of a CIA. Myself, I tend to think "intelligence" remains an embarrassing business of failing to meet the definition of the term for those who do it, but I've relaxed a lot of my rigidity about what the CIA does (this, you may not understand, goes back to when I was 15 and wrote my first research paper on the CIA's role in assassinating Salvador Allende, and I'm real good at research). Especially since 9/11, I think the work of stopping terrorism is, first and foremost, the task of operations like the CIA, rather than, say, The Army.
As for drones, I am on the (admittedly unpopular, especially on the left) side of generally being okay with it, a position I've taken before, and where I remain comfortable. I don't want more terrorist events in the US, and I think "taking out" those who lead organizations that plot such terror actions is a way to do that.
I also tend to think that it's tenuous to say that Anwar Al-Awlaki is best described as an "American citizen" while running Al Qaeda recruitment in Yemen; Awalki himself tended to claim Yemeni citizenship, having been born in the US while his parents, from Yemen, were here for University. He grew up mostly in Yemen, attended college in the US on a foreign student visa, and his role as an Imam advising and encouraging others to jihad doesn't seem like the most, erm, patriotic of lifestyles. His father remains a top Yemeni government official. All of which tends to undermine laments that al-Awlaki should be seen as someone like a next door neighbor who just happens to be living overseas. The argument about drone strikes against Americans absent an American legal process seems murky at best given this person as a target.
I'm not thrilled about any government program of targeted killing, and I'm not remotely suggesting that the drone program, its legal justification or its operational practices, doesn't deserve extensive scrutiny and debate. This is not about "shut up and stop complaining." But I do think we should sort out the complaints and keep in mind the practical realities of the world in which we live while doing so. The theoretical legal doctrines of using drones on "American citizens" ought to be questioned, but a world in which the only "citizens" are in the al-Awlaki family thus far is where theory and practice need, probably, to both be taken into account. I don't know if I'd feel the same about a drone policy under George W. Bush. And just today, John Yoo, Bush's legal architect of torture policy, took to the Wall Street Journal to support the Obama drone strategy... but at the same time offering a "you're justifying it wrong" on the legal questions, arguing that simply labeling people as "enemy combatants" trumps questions of citizenship. It seems to me the Obama Administration is less cavalier than that, and that's probably a good, or at least a better, way of thinking about things like this.
Similarly, I don't think the question here is whether drone policy can hinder or derail John Brennan's appointment to head the CIA; Brennan's come across as thoughtful and deliberate in his public testimony, and his experience seems appropriate for the job. And like most post 9/11 policy, Congress isn't especially brave challenging approaches to attack terrorist threats. But more pointedly, I don't think a majority of Americans are anywhere near the hand wringing of the anti-CIA left on drones and targeted killings of suspected terrorists. That may change, but I don't think the events of these couple of weeks, the revelations of memos and uncertain numbers of "civilian" casualties, have changed many minds.
If you don't like the CIA, if you don't like armed conflict, if you don't like military approaches to international issues... then it seems to me the drone policy is really just a detail in a much larger, more complicated, and in some ways very idealistic, argument. That doesn't make a passionate commitment to anti-violence less worthwhile... but in the context of a debate that's less about whether to have a drone program but more about how a drone program will operate, that position seems pretty much left out of the whole thing. We may get there, and in some ways, I'd be relieved if we did; we would surely be living in a better, more enlightened world. And maybe I have just given in to being a cynical realist when it comes to accepting a world of guns, drones and random acts of violence. But for now, the Drone Wars seem like a reailty we'll be stuck with for a while, a reality many Americans seem willing to accept. The enormity of changing that reality isn't a reason to stop trying... but it's a lot to take on, and I'm not sure the Pro-peace Left is really equipped, at this point, to effect that kind of change. And isn't that the way the CIA likes it?