U.S. must set policy on drone strikes

February 7, 2013 

The following editorial, excerpted here, appeared in The New York Times on Thursday:

In more than a decade at war since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has relied increasingly on drones to kill people away from the battlefield. It has faced few constraints. Now an overdue push for greater accountability and transparency is gathering steam, propelled by growing unease that the drones strike targets in countries with whom it is not formally at war, that there are no publicly understood rules for picking targets and that the strikes may kill innocent civilians and harm, not help, U.S. interests.

Stanley McChrystal, the retired general, has warned that drone strikes are so resented abroad that their overuse could jeopardize broader U.S. objectives. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at his confirmation hearing of the need to make sure that “American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone.”

Drones have obvious advantages. The unmanned vehicles, whose controllers may be hundreds of miles away at a remote base, can hover silently over a target for hours, transmitting images and sound, and then strike quickly if needed. The administration says the use of drones has taken many enemy combatants off the battlefield and reduced civilian casualties.

For years, Obama has stretched executive power to claim that the 2001 congressional authorization to use military force against al-Qaida gives him the unilateral authority to order people, including American citizens, killed away from any battlefield without judicial oversight or public accountability. He took a step in the right direction Wednesday when he directed the Justice Department to give congressional committees its classified legal advice on targeting Americans.

Officials say they target only belligerents covered by the 2001 legislation, but the public has no way of knowing under what criteria these targets are chosen. Nor does it know, absent publicly stated rules, how the 2001 law would be interpreted by future presidents.

The White House has said it is still developing rules for when to kill terrorists. The United States has conducted more than 400 total strikes in at least three countries – Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – killing more than 3,000 people in its war on al-Qaida, according to a report by Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The majority killed were part of a CIA covert program begun in 2004 and aimed at militants in Pakistan.

At a minimum, U.S. rules should specify that no one can be killed unless actively planning or participating in terror, or helping lead al-Qaida or the Taliban in Pakistan. Killing should be authorized only when it can be demonstrated that capture is impossible. Standards for preventing the killing of innocents who might be nearby should be detailed and thorough.

An investigator for the United Nations Human Rights Council said last month that he would study the “exponential rise” in drone strikes in counterterrorist operations. More than 50 nations have or are trying to get the technology. The United States will set the standard for them all.

The New York Times

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