The CIA Plans Summer Blockbusters in Yemen

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The secret campaign of drone strikes is scheduled for July. And it exemplifies how much unchecked power we've given our presidents. 

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Yemen is a small country where most of the people speak Arabic, practice Islam, and resent it when their friends or family members are killed by missiles that suddenly rain down from the sky. So safe to say that some of them are going to be mighty angry at the US later this summer when the CIA begins to conduct regular drone strikes in the country, something the spy agency hasn't done since 2002. "The covert program that would give the U.S. greater latitude than the current military campaign is the latest step to combat the growing threat from al Qaeda's outpost, which has been the source of several attempted attacks on the U.S. and is home to an American-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who the U.S. sees as a significant militant threat," the Wall Street Journal reports. If you've lost count, that's Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen where the Obama Administration will be warring.

It's almost impossible for the average American to know whether this is prudent or necessary. That's why we elect Congressional representatives to help make these decisions. Put beside a randomly chosen legislator, would you bet for or against his ability to identify the specific threat posed by Al Qaeda in Yemen, make the case that drone strikes will advance our interests, or even name the country's geographic neighbors? I'd bet against him. Official ignorance and lack of oversight are what happens when sweeping campaigns of killing are launched as follows:

President Barack Obama secretly approved the new Yemen program last year. It has been under development for several months because of the complicated logistics required to set up a major intelligence operation in an unstable corner of the world...

While the specific contours of the CIA program are still being decided, the current thinking is that when the CIA shifts the program from intelligence collection into a targeted killing program, it will select targets using the same broad criteria it uses in Pakistan. There, the agency selects targets by name or if their profile or "pattern of life"--analyzed through persistent surveillance--fits that of known al Qaeda or affiliated militants. By using those broad criteria, the U.S. would likely conduct more strikes in Yemen, where the U.S. now only goes after known militants.

I'm all for killing terrorists. If I had to guess, I'd say that President Obama has a perfectly defensible case for targeting the Yemeni variety. The problem is process. It's easy to imagine circumstances wherein operating this way is a strategic boon. But it's unwise to grant one man, or one branch of government, carte blanche to kill anywhere on earth, especially with its secret intelligence agency. 

Remember? The Church Committee established the folly of this approach years ago in its landmark report on CIA abuses abroad during the tenures of Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, declaring the necessity of better oversight so that similar excesses would never happen again. 

As America obsesses over tweets of a Congressman's penis, it is somehow still controversial to insist that shooting missiles or dropping bombs inside yet another country should be subject to robust public and Congressional debate. But what do you fear more, that elected officials forced to deliberate on these matters would be too restrained? Or that American leaders given extraordinary, effectively unchecked powers on a global scale will eventually abuse them in some horrifying way?

For me, it's the latter.
 

Image credit: Flickr user Ammar Awad
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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