Standards needed for drone use

February 12, 2013

In 1973, just as the Watergate scandal was reaching its apogee, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published “The Imperial Presidency,” which argued that the power vested in and used by U.S. chief executives had exceeded the parameters set by the Constitution.

Forty years later, it’s hard to imagine a more vivid illustration of Schlesinger’s “imperial presidency” than the all-too-vague protocols that surround the use of unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists operating abroad.

Though much of the program is swathed in secrecy, estimates have it that 3,000 people have been killed in places like Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan by U.S. drone strikes. That total apparently includes three U.S. citizens. Started under President George W. Bush and continuing under President Obama, proponents argue that drones can pinpoint al-Qaida members and “associates” and deal with them without having to launch costly commando raids that could come with U.S. fatalities.

Certainly, it must be said that the Obama administration’s aggressive use of drones gives the lie to critics who try to paint him as some sort of pacifist wimp. The vigorous pursuit of suspected terrorists here and abroad and the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 demonstrate beyond much doubt that Obama is aware of the potential threats America faces and is eager to use the country’s military and intelligence resources to confront them.

But, as the program is currently constituted, too much authority is given to the president and his aides to determine what constitutes a threat and who should be killed. They’re not working under much of a rule book. Moreover, the three Americans believed to have been killed by drone strikes were denied due-process proceedings to determine their innocence or guilt. The president acted as judge, jury and executioner, and that’s a chilling prospect to ponder. If this remains the standard, who is to say that some future commander-in-chief won’t decide that an “enemy” on our own soil needs to be eliminated, even if that “enemy” turns out to be merely a political opponent.

Documents released by the Obama administration argue that drones can be utilized when an individual poses an “imminent threat” to the United States, but both the “threat” and the exact degree of its imminence are left ambiguous. While the desire to not tip off terrorists that they are under surveillance or in our gunsights is understandable, there should be some oversight in the process, whether it comes through Congress or even a judicial body like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which keeps most of its proceedings classified.

Although the drone program is, arguably, preventing the loss of life among American personnel, it runs the risk of creating blowback and increasing the terrorist threat over the long haul. If you’re living in a Yemeni outback and your whole family has been obliterated in a strike by a U.S. drone, you might be more favorably inclined to hear what an al-Qaida recruiter has to say the next time he comes knocking.

Administration officials seemed to realize that the rules have been nebulous when, faced with the possibility of Mitt Romney winning the presidency, they scrambled to come up with detailed guidelines for the use of drones. Apparently, they didn’t quite trust that Romney or his aides would operate under the same standards.

But, right now, the only standard seems to be “trust us.” That’s a paradigm that a king might expect, but it’s not something the American people should accept.



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