A report in the New York Times on Sunday describes how, leading up to the recent US election, the Obama administration made a determined push to codify guidelines for its targeted assassination (aka 'Kill List') program and clarify rules for the use of US predator drones strikes overseas.
Critics of the US drone program have long made the argument that Democratic supporters of the President would perhaps lose their enthusiasm (or passive acceptance) for the "kill list" program if it was placed in the hands of a Republican president like the party's most recent hopeful, Mitt Romney.
The Times reporting on Sunday seems to indicate that the fear of handing over an ambiguous and secretive assassination program to a Republican administration was also shared by some top officials in the Obama administration.
Reported by the paper's Scott Shane, the article says that the "attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer after news reports on the drone program, started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama, revealed some details of the president’s role in the shifting procedures for compiling “kill lists” and approving strikes."
Though the Obama administration has continually sought to protect the secrecy of certain details of its program, it has simultaneously defended its usefulness in combating international terrorism. This contradiction has been seized by international human rights groups, US civil libertarians, journalists, and the United Nations, calling on the US government to come clean on how it justifies the extrajudicial killing of individuals--both foreign citizens and American nationals--in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and others.
Shane reports that "the president and top aides believe [the programs] should be institutionalized," and that efforts to do "seemed particularly urgent when it appeared that Mitt Romney might win the presidency."
The report continues:
“There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Mr. Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, the official said.
Mr. Obama himself, in little-noticed remarks, has acknowledged that the legal governance of drone strikes is still a work in progress.
“One of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need Congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in but any president’s reined in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making,” Mr. Obama told Jon Stewart in an appearance on “The Daily Show” on Oct. 18.
In an interview with Mark Bowden for a new book on the killing of Osama bin Laden, “The Finish,” Mr. Obama said that “creating a legal structure, processes, with oversight checks on how we use unmanned weapons, is going to be a challenge for me and my successors for some time to come.”
The president expressed wariness of the powerful temptation drones pose to policy makers. “There’s a remoteness to it that makes it tempting to think that somehow we can, without any mess on our hands, solve vexing security problems,” he said.
Despite public remarks by Mr. Obama and his aides on the legal basis for targeted killing, the program remains officially classified. In court, fighting lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times seeking secret legal opinions on targeted killings, the government has refused even to acknowledge the existence of the drone program in Pakistan.
In an interesting aside, the report also notes that the United Nations plans to open a unit in Geneva early next year to investigate American drone strikes.
Such a development was hinted at last month when the UN's special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights announced that the Human Rights Council at the UN would likely initiate an investigation into civilian deaths caused by the CIA and US military's use of drones and other targeted killing programs.
Ben Emmerson, UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, at speech given at Harvard Law School, that he and his UN colleague, Christof Heyns, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, warned that an investigation of the US program was warranted and said that if certain allegations against the US proved true, he would consider them serious enough to call "war crimes".