WASHINGTON — A proposal to give federal judges a direct role in the nation's drone campaign gained new momentum this week with a signal from senior lawmakers that they intend to consider creating a special court to oversee the selection of targets for lethal strikes.
But the idea, cited by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., among others, as a way to impose new accountability on the drone program, faces significant legal and logistical hurdles, according to U.S. officials and legal experts.
Among the main obstacles is almost certain opposition from the executive branch to a dilution of the president's authority to protect the country against looming threats. Others include the difficulty of putting judges in a position to approve the killing of individuals — possibly including American citizens — even if they have not been convicted of a crime.
In more practical terms, U.S. officials expressed concern that a judicial review would lead to delays that might erode the country's ability to preempt terrorist attacks.
The idea "is politically and practically difficult and therefore unlikely to happen in the end," said Robert Chesney, an expert on national security law at the University of Texas. "But it seems more likely today than it did just a few weeks ago."
That is largely because comments from Feinstein and others during a confirmation hearing Thursday on the nomination of John Brennan to serve as CIA director made clear that the idea of a special drone court has gained new backing on Capitol Hill.
Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the panel would evaluate having judges review targeting decisions much like a special court scrutinizes certain U.S. wiretapping operations in the United States.
The drone panel, Feinstein said, would be "an analogue of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court," a panel that meets in secret and rules on government requests to wiretap terrorism suspects inside the United States without traditional court warrants.