Obama's Execution of the Drone War Should Terrify Even Drone Defenders

It's one thing to support killing militants, and quite another to empower one man to do it in secret without checks or meaningful oversight.

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Reuters

Essayist Tom Junod's latest masterpiece, "The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama," grapples at length with the unprecedented assassination program that the United States has waged since 2009. "Your lethality is expansive in both practice and principle; you are fighting terrorism with a policy of preemptive execution, and claiming not just the legal right to do so but the legal right to do so in secret," the piece, addressed to the president himself, states. "The American people, for the most part, have no idea who has been killed, and why; the American people -- and for that matter, most of their representatives in Congress -- have no idea what crimes those killed in their name are supposed to have committed, and have been told that they are not entitled to know."

Notice the multiple objections that the essay sets forth. It expresses unease with the mere fact of so much killing. But it concerns itself as much with process. The Obama Administration isn't just assassinating an unprecedented number of individuals. It is doing so in a secret, unaccountable manner that lacks transparency or a meaningful check on the power of the executive.

President Obama's defenders conveniently ignore all but one of these objections.

Andrew Sullivan -- again claiming, as if it matters, that Obama is morally superior to his predecessor -- says, "As to the drone war, what would Junod have Obama do? The alternatives are either long-term occupation of Jihadist-spawning countries, or a decision to end all military responses to Jihadist terror, or a more focused drone campaign that can minimize civilian casualties while taking out key enemies planning to kill Western and Muslim civilians. I harbor severe worries about the unintended consequences of the drone war, and deeply regret civilian casualties. But there were around 100,000 civilian casualties caused by the Iraq occupation."

I do not concede that America's alternatives are "cause mass casualties by invading foreign countries" or "conduct a widespread assassination program," and find it remarkable that Obama supporters have persuaded themselves that those are the only options available to America.

But say that frequent drone strikes were an imperative. That hypothetical hardly implies that the particular done campaign we are waging is prudent and lawful. Although Sullivan regularly evades this point, a world where drone strikes were imperative would still raise vital questions about the particular way that the drone war ought to be waged.

Should the criteria for being put on a kill list remain secret, or should there be consistent standards that are promulgated and debated? Does the Constitutional guarantee of due process and Article III treason provisions imply a judicial role when American citizens are placed on a kill list, or is the Obama Administration correct that intra-executive branch deliberations can satisfy the requirement of due process? Should the strikes be carried out by the U.S. military or the CIA? In determining how many of the people we kill are innocent civilians, should we presume that all dead males of military age were in fact enemies of the United States?

Most important of all, is it imprudent to give this president and all future presidents the unchecked power to kill in secret? Or does human nature and the framework of checks and balances devised by America's founders suggest that multiple layers of oversight is the wiser course?

The Obama Administration has answered these questions indefensibly, but the president's defenders go right on defending his drone program with the inadequate argument that it is theoretically justified.

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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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