Contrary to what some readers might think, I haven’t categorically supported President Obama’s predator drone program. I haven’t furiously opposed it either because, honestly, I haven’t necessarily believed drones are the dystopian Killbots they’re made out to be by the loudest opponents of the technology. It’s safe to say I’ve been frustratingly ambivalent about drones, which, in case you’re curious, is a great way to be falsely labeled a Drones Superfan. Even though I’m far from it.
And as you might know, I’ve tossed around some strong words about writers and bloggers who curiously prioritize the drone program over everything else, giving it disproportional weight and attention over the lengthy roster of positive administration accomplishments. Those views haven’t changed, and I stand by everything I’ve written.
But I must say, the newly leaked Justice Department “white paper,” revealed exclusively by NBC News’ Michael Isikoff, is pretty disturbing. The memo, titled “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force,” lays out a fairly comprehensive 16-page justification for using predator drones to kill U.S. citizens who are suspected of being terrorist leaders. The memo states that the drone attacks “must be conducted according to ‘law of war principles.'”
So war is the context.
Of course we’ve been aware of the administration’s use of drones against American citizens since the targeted assassination of American-born operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, but that particular attack seemed like an isolated incident. This eery document makes it a matter of general drone policy during a perpetual war and puts into black-and-white language a sort of self-absolution that reminded me of the Bybee Memo, written by Bush administration legal counsel John Yoo who created a specious legal justification for the use of torture against suspected terrorists.
After reading the memo, I’ve reached the conclusion that one of two things must happen: either we end the war on terrorism and rescind the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, or we place serious restrictions on how drones are to be used in perpetuity.
Before we continue, some history. Whether deliberately or accidentally, presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt have attacked and killed American citizens under the umbrella of either a congressionally-declared war or during a crisis of open rebellion with a massive rebel army gathered across the river from Washington, D.C. Clearly, the war on terrorism is a new kind of warfare with distinct characteristics, but the fact remains that under the banner of war, American citizens operating as militaristic enemies of America and plotting attacks against our interests are, in a broad sense, not unlike Confederate soldiers or American citizens living in Italian cities during Allied bombing campaigns. There’s no reasonable justification for not attacking the Confederate Army (Lincoln considered them American citizens), and there’s it’s difficult to know how World War II would’ve ended without engaging in total war against civilian populations.
But those wars were finite, with clear goals and well-defined endings. The war on terrorism appears to be perpetual, as there will always be terrorists no matter what we do or how many drones we launch. Therefore there’s no justification for an endless war in which American citizens can be targeted for execution. And this memo makes a case for such a plan: killing anyone who’s accused of committing or plotting to commit a crime in a vaguely-defined war.
If the administration opts to continue this policy, it should be compelled to lay out a timeline or clear ending to this war and thus an end to the president’s war powers enabling his use of drones against citizens, as was the case with Lincoln and Roosevelt. Or, if this is to be an ongoing process, like law enforcement, then we have to treat it accordingly and place restrictions on what techniques can be used, just as we do with law enforcement and due process. Specifically, the president shouldn’t be allowed to kill citizens without due process outside the confines of a declared war with a stated ending.
Anything short of this action will allow the administration — and, more menacingly, future administrations — to retain massive, unaccountable and extrajudicial executive power that could be used in far more dangerous ways, and into the foreseeable future. The notion that executive officials, including the president, could endlessly (and I underscore endlessly) hand down death sentences against American citizens ought to be shocking to anyone regardless of how they feel about the president’s accomplishments or his level of greatness.
I totally understand the justification for drones as a weapon: chiefly that they prevent the deaths of American soldiers and pilots. On the surface and used with extreme discretion, it sounds like a safe way to hit back against an opposing military force. But a risk-free weapon (price tag aside) must be used sparingly because common sense tells us that the temptation to abuse such a risk-free privilege is so great that the lure of its convenience could very easily spiral out of control into the unthinkable. A predator drone is an amazing example of American military technology, but it should be used with equally amazing discretion — used as sparingly as a piloted aircraft or a battalion of soldiers. And so there must be legally-imposed restrictions on how they’re used, otherwise it’s easy to see how the use of drones could expand into all varieties of constitutionally unsavory areas, and I’m sure a clever team of White House lawyers could fashion a slippery justification for each one.
I also understand that it’s sometimes impossible to put this sort of toothpaste back into the tube, especially after eight years in which some Bush administration officials were literally crying in public while trying to scare us about the threat of another terrorist attack on American soil. Consequently, too many Americans have been programmed to have a whatever-it-takes attitude when it comes to anti-terrorism efforts. That’s why a considerable cross-section of us have acquiesced to body scanners, FISA eavesdropping and all the rest of it. Thus, the administration had to decide which Bush-era policies it wanted to roll back (torture, Iraq) and, in order to do so, it also had to maintain vigilance on terrorism. Yet even though the president killed Bin Laden and has used drones to kill American citizens with connections to al-Qaida, large chunks of the frightened citizenry have labeled him an al-Qaida sympathizer. No matter what he does there will be lots of very loud hooples who can’t get beyond Hussein the Secret Muslim Who Wants Sharia Law. It’s a no win situation, so why not do the right thing?
Today — right now — we’re passing through the point of no return on the war on terrorism, and it’s urgent that we at least try to wrap things up. Otherwise, we’re going to careen recklessly into a very, very dark and unconstitutional place. This president — the president who killed Bin Laden and shattered much of al-Qaida’s leadership — has the power and anti-terrorism political capital to end all of this madness. If we’re lucky, the leaking of the drones memo will be the inciting incident that leads us back to a place where endless war is quaint artifact of an overzealous and fearful time in American history.
This is also an opportunity for the administration to make a statement about the use of over-the-top violence to solve problems. I’ve been writing extensively about ways to curb gun violence in America, and so as I read the drone memo, I couldn’t help but to think that if the president places deliberate restrictions on how America exercises its deadliest assault weapons, in this case drones, it would be a grand step in the direction of rolling back our gun culture. Perhaps if our leadership is less bellicose, then maybe, over time, so will we.