A byproduct of President Obama's nomination of John O. Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency has been the start of a long overdue and necessary debate about the use of drone attacks to disrupt terrorist networks, the role of executive power in directing those attacks and constitutional protections, particularly when U.S. citizens are on the receiving end. Mr. Brennan, counterterrorism adviser to President Obama, is the chief architect of the drone-attack program.
A Senate confirmation hearing on Mr. Brennan's nomination came just days after the leak of a Justice Department memo explaining the legal rationale for the drone killing of Anwar al-Awalaki, an American citizen working with the al-Qaida network in the Arabian Peninsula. A drone killed him in Yemen in a September 2011 attack.
Some have argued that using a drone attack to kill a U.S. citizen is a death sentence without due process. That argument fails to recognize that this nation remains at war with al-Qaida. This is not your traditional war, certainly. Al-Qaida is not a nation, though some nations clandestinely assist it. There is no battlefield. But this organization launched the Sept. 11, 2001 attack that murdered nearly 3,000 Americans on U.S. soil and has designs to attack again, given the opportunity.
Any U.S. citizen who would assist al-Qaida should know they are the enemy and are no more entitled to due process prior to attack than would have been an American aiding and abetting Nazi forces on foreign soil in World War II.
Others see hypocrisy in President Obama's sanctioning of drone attacks after he criticized his predecessor's authorization of "enhanced interrogation techniques" that arguably crossed the line into torture. We return to the war argument. In war sometimes enemies are killed, sometimes captured, but if captured they should not be subject to torture. There is no inconsistency.
What concerns us more than thumb twiddling over the rights of treasonous citizens is the lack of transparency concerning the drone program and too much authority resting in the hands of the president without necessary checks and balances.
As much as possible, without risking national security, the Obama administration needs to share with the American people the protocol on which it bases its decision to utilize drone strikes. So far the administration has been reluctant to even inform the Congress. The White House this past week took a small but significant step when it directed the Justice Department to release to two congressional intelligence committees classified documents discussing the legal justification for using drones to attack American citizens abroad.
More information needs to flow to congressional oversight committees so they can serve as a necessary check on executive authority. Leaked documents show the administration's criteria is to use drone attacks only when no other means, including capture, are available and those subject to the attack pose "an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States."
Yet the number and nature of the attacks - one reliable estimate concluded drone attacks killed about 400 people since 2009 - suggests the Obama administration is interpreting "imminent threat" far too broadly. Recent reporting by the New York Times found many of those targeted were low-level mercenaries in the al-Qaida network unlikely to pose any genuine imminent threat to the United States.
If this killing technology is abused it may well create more enemies of the United States than it eliminates. The drones are killing many innocent civilians, whether because of mistaken targeting or their proximity to terrorists. These strikes from above by unmanned predatory machines can breed hatred in foreign communities and aid recruiting by al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.
While the United States should not remove drone strikes from its arsenal in the war on terror, their use should be rare and only employed based on solid intelligence of an imminent threat to U.S. security. More transparency and increased congressional oversight will minimize the risk of abusing this terribly effective, soulless new weapon.