With last week’s confirmation hearings for John O. Brennan, President Obama’s choice to lead the CIA, and a leaked white paper, a congressional and public debate about drones appears to have begun. It is necessary and long overdue.
President Obama has been successful using these new, and radically different, instruments of war, which make it possible to kill our enemies from a great distance by remote control.
He has also been successful keeping the program secret, both the execution and legal justification for it — in particular the targeting of American citizens in foreign countries who have joined our enemies. Like the Bush administration’s use of torture in interrogations, and wiretaps under the foreign surveillance programs, this raises constitutional and due process questions and cries out for congressional and judicial review.
But someone has to care enough to ask the questions and demand answers. That didn’t happen for most of Obama’s first term, despite hundreds of stories in major media outlets. Congress and the public acted as if they didn’t want to know.
In the middle of last year, Congress started pressing Obama for details and a legal justification. The result was the white paper, which was leaked to NBC News days before the confirmation hearings of Brennan, chief architect of the drone program. The white paper sets certain conditions for when the president can order, on his own authority, the killing of an American citizen, such as a person posing an “imminent threat” of an attack on this nation. But it doesn’t define imminent theat, and is overall very vague and broad.
Some in Congress are suggesting a drone court, like the foreign surveillance court, and the administration is sounding receptive. Judicial warrants for drone strikes would provide some level of oversight, but they are likely to be rubber stamps. And do we really want our courts sentencing people to death without a trial, perhaps without even having actually done anything?
Before we routinize killings by drone, Congress needs to hold hearings, similar to the Church Commission hearings of 1970, and talk about the moral, constitutional and practical implications.