Brighten their holiday. Enrich their everyday.Give The Atlantic

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.

obama full sitting reuters.jpg


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.

"As to the drone war," Sullivan asks, "what would Junod have Obama do?" The essayist is on record with one proposal:

Barack Obama has created the Lethal Presidency by insisting he that he has been given the power to kill, in secret, anyone who is plotting against Americans or American interests, even if he or she is an American citizen.

It will be very difficult to constrain that power, no matter who is president. But if the Lethal Presidency is going to have any accountability at all, we should demand that Congress pass a law stating that if the administration kills an American citizen, it should not be able to keep all the particulars secret. The administration should be compelled to say who it killed and why.

I've got my own notions of what I'd have Obama do. If we're presuming a world where a widespread campaign of drone assassinations is a given, I'd have him build various safeguards into the program that limit the unchecked power he now recklessly claims as the executive's right. I'd have him anticipate the sorts of abuses that he worried about as a senator, demonstrating that he damn well understands them. I'd ask him to stop using the secrecy he has created to elevate defenders of his procedures and silence critics who express important misgivings.

I'm tired of Obama defenders who acknowledge that these criticisms have merit and that they'd like to see some of these reforms implemented, even as they continue defending drone strikes absent any reforms. If they must support an unprecedented campaign of assassination with no apparent end, they ought to at least make it contingent on the implementation of basic safeguards that they damn well know to be prudent and reasonable limits on the power of the presidency.

Says Sonny Bunch, zooming back to a larger issue, "there is something weirdly, madly galling about people arguing that pretending to drown someone who has information about an imminent terrorist attack is a Hague-worthy offense while blowing them the f--k up isn't that big of a deal. It's not a big deal even when they're American citizens still afforded protection by the Constitution."

When Bunch says "pretending to drown someone," he is talking about torturing prisoners by blindfolding them, strapping them to a board, and forcing water into their lungs until they fill up and create the sensation of drowning, one of the most terrifying feelings to which a human can be subjected. Though Obama hasn't prosecuted anyone for carrying out that practice, it is in fact torture, and until the United States did it the notion that it might result in a war-crimes trial didn't trouble any Americans. I still wish that the leaders who made America a torturing nation would be held legally accountable, but I must say that I'd rather be waterboarded than blown up, and Obama's drone campaign has killed more innocents than Bush's interrogation program tortured.

That liberal hypocrisy is of trivial importance compared to the task of safeguarding the country against presidential abuses never seems to occur to Bunch, and along with his fellow conservatives he is making the same mistake as Sullivan: allowing the fact that he believes a practice is necessary and justified to blind him to the importance implementing all policies so that no one individual is operating beyond the checks and balances to which we owe our liberty.