No, Obama Does Not 'Deserve to Be Trusted on Drones'

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The latest result of a major abuse of power: 59 unexplained bodies in Pakistan. What is the president thinking?

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When reflecting on human nature, people in powerful positions, and whether they can be trusted to admit error, I always remember this Andrew Martin article about prosecutors who try their damnedest to keep Americans in prison even after DNA evidence proves they're almost certainly innocent. Perhaps they're just malign, but it seems more likely that they're unable to accept the disturbing fact that they're the sort of people who've ruined lives and transgressed against justice.

That brings us to today's subject: America's drone war. Karen DeYoung offers details in The Washington Post:

Since September, at least 60 people have died in 14 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal regions. The Obama administration has named only one of the dead, hailing the elimination of Janbaz Zadran, a top official in the Haqqani insurgent network, as a counterterrorism victory.

The identities of the rest remain classified, as does the existence of the drone program itself. Because the names of the dead and the threat they were believed to pose are secret, it is impossible for anyone without access to U.S. intelligence to assess whether the deaths were justified.

If the Obama Administration set about to design a program such that horrific abuses would ultimately occur, this would be an effective framework. It's as though we've taken the insights of the Founders and done the opposite: no checks, no balances, just trust in the incorruptibility of the leader.

That's how the Obama Administration prefers it. Says the article:


The administration has said that its covert, targeted killings with remote-controlled aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and potentially beyond are proper under both domestic and international law. It has said that the targets are chosen under strict criteria, with rigorous internal oversight.

It has parried reports of collateral damage and the alleged killing of innocents by saying that drones, with their surveillance capabilities and precision missiles, result in far fewer mistakes than less sophisticated weapons. Yet in carrying out hundreds of strikes over three years -- resulting in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths in Pakistan -- it has provided virtually no details to support those assertions.

Setting this precedent alone is an irresponsible abuse of power. Across successive administrations, there is no chance that commanders in chief can order unlimited secret assassinations with impunity and never abuse that extreme discretion. Men are corrupted by far less power, and in situations where there are many more checks on their misbehavior. What is Obama thinking?

In outlining its legal reasoning, the administration has cited broad congressional authorizations and presidential approvals, the international laws of war and the right to self-defense.

For once, let's put aside the self-serving and dubious legal arguments. Say this approach to drone warfare is legal. There is just no realistic account of human nature that makes it prudent.

I found the following particularly absurd. "Senior administration officials say they deserve to be trusted on drones," the article states, "in part because Obama kept his pledge to do away with the CIA's secret prisons and the use of harsh interrogation techniques." So the profound abuses of the last president are being marshaled as arguments in favor of a policy that would give all future presidents the power to kill anywhere with no oversight? Shutting down the CIA's ability to secretly imprison is cited as an argument in favor of giving the CIA the power to secretly kill?!

One day, perhaps many years from now, Americans will read about the abuses of power that American presidents perpetrated in the years following the September 11 terrorist attacks. After all the ugly truths are out, there will be widespread revulsion, as if we couldn't have known at the time that something indefensible was going on. But I submit that when the president has adopted a policy of killing whoever he wants, without ever explaining who the targets were, or why it was appropriate to target them, or how we know we're right, something indefensible is already going on.


Image credit: Reuters
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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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