According to news reports, President Obama maintains a list of alleged militants to be assassinated. Some are US citizens. None will get to plead his case. The president tells us to trust that this is all perfectly legal and constitutional, even though Congress is not allowed to see any legal justification. The weapon of choice in these assassinations: remote-controlled planes called drones.
The targeted killing of suspects by the United States is slowly and quietly becoming institutionalized as a permanent feature of the US counterterrorism strategy. Unless members of Congress begin to push back, such killings will continue – without any oversight, transparency or accountability. Victims of drone strikes – including US citizens – are secretly stripped of their right to due process and are arbitrarily deprived of their life, in violation of international human rights law.
The attempted characterization of drones as a precise weapon is irrelevant and chilling because it values the alleged high-tech efficiency of the killing above the rule of law. Drones are a weapon that must be subject to the same constraints and laws as every other weapon employed by the US government. As the authors of a recent groundbreaking report by Stanford and New York Universities on drones in Pakistan powerfully stated:
"In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling 'targeted killing' of terrorists, with minimal downsides of collateral impacts. This narrative is false."
Four years into the Obama administration's vast expansion of the program, members of Congress and the public are still being denied access to internal legal memos, which purportedly serve as the basis of the legal justification for such killings. More than a decade after 9/11, even people in support of the program recognize its risks. A former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst and adviser to the administration likened the policy to mowing the lawn:
"You've got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back."
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In other words, the perceived short-term benefits may be obscuring significant long-term costs.
These strikes do not occur in a vacuum. They have very real consequences for our long-term national security. In Pakistan, they have fueled significant anti-American sentiment and serve as a powerful recruitment tool for terrorists. According to some estimates, our drone strikes have resulted in the death and injury of thousands of innocent civilians. Despite repeated claims that such drone strikes are vital to ensuring our safety, the number of "high-level" targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low – estimated at just 2%.
The world is now our battlefield. Our credibility as a voice for human rights has been undermined. A dangerous precedent has been set for all nations.
All US government officials, including the president, want to ensure the safety of the United States. At the same time, we have a responsibility to the American people to ensure that programs being conducted in our name are done with at least a minimum of transparency and accountability. We have a responsibility to re-evaluate these policies if there is any indication that they could be harmful to us in the long run.
Regardless of where one stands on the efficiency of the United States' use of drone strikes as a cornerstone of its counterterrorism strategy, we can all agree that Congress must fully exercise its oversight powers to ensure that the program is being conducted in accordance with the law. This means examining what civilian protection measures – if any – the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) use when conducting drone strikes; requiring the administration to make available its legal justification for such strikes; and evaluating the strategic value of this program in comparison to other available counterterrorism tools.
We must reject the notion that Congress and the American people have to be kept in the dark when it comes to modern warfare. We must begin with a full and robust debate on the ramifications of these policies. We must insist upon full accountability and transparency.