The use of unmanned aircraft (drones) to assassinate purported leaders of Al Qaeda overseas has become a hot issue over the past week following three major events:
- NBC News’ national investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff released a confidential 16-page Justice Department memo that laid out the legal case for targeted killings, including those of American citizens who were alleged Al Qaeda sympathizers.
- Then the president ordered the Justice Department to release classified documents to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees covering the legal justifications for those killings.
- And finally President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, testified on the subject during his confirmation hearings for CIA director.
He did have to field a few tough questions (especially in light of the Isikoff memo) but he strongly defended the legal basis of the use of drones:
These strikes are conducted in full compliance with the law. In fact, extraordinary care is taken to ensure that they conform to the law of war principles of (1) necessity—the requirement that the target have significant military value; (2) distinction—the idea that…civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted; (3) proportionality—the notion that the anticipated collateral damage of an action cannot be excessive…, and (4) humanity—a principle that requires us to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering.
Brennan made a much more comprehensive defense of the program in an April 2012 speech at the Woodrow Wilson Internationl Center. You can read it here.
During his testimony, Brennan said some judicial oversight of the program was worth considering and after the hearing, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she’d pursue it.
But what’s most striking is how normal the idea of killing alleged terrorists, including American citizens suspected of being Al Qaeda members, has become. Remember, these are happening in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, countries with whom we are not at war—and Mali may be next on the list. Missions are conducted by remotely piloted aircraft and the specific “kill” decisions are being made by the president of the United States himself.
I do think some kind of drone program is necessary—it’s much better, of course, than massive invasions, like Iraq, or even cruise missile attacks, like the failed effort to take out Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. They may even forestall bigger military actions that have even greater unintended consequences.
But we’re going to need a LOT more review and transparency. Underlying all this is a dramatic, insidious accrual of power to the executive branch over the past few decades. As the writer Garry Wills put it in his 2011 book “Bomb Power”:
…Since the inception of World War II we have had a continuous state of impending or partial war, with retained constitutional restrictions. World War II faded into the Cold War, and the Cold War into the war on terror,…[but] the requirements became more stringent, not less…Normality never returned, and the executive power increased decade by decade, reaching a new high in the twenty-first century—a continuous story of unidirectional increase in the executive power…
The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial rolling of power toward the executive branch…Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers…have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order.
We can’t just trust the judgment of the president, as some liberals have actually said this week–if only because the next president may be a lot more cavalier. And we need to think about ways to roll back executive power, not increase it.