Brennan and Obama's Drone Playbook Must Be Debated Publicly
Drone policy must be debated openly, as other countries will follow America's example
February 6, 2013
John Brennan has said U.S. drone policy is "establishing precedents that other nations may follow, and not all of them [read China, Russia, Iran] will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life, including innocent civilians." He's right. Drone technology is proliferating faster than norms to govern it, so U.S. practice is setting the rules of the road by default. That's a problem.
Drones are not inherently wrong. Targeted killing in wartime is always preferable to its opposite—indiscriminate killing. But lethal targeting is lawful in very limited circumstances outside of wartime, and for good reason. The United States now relies so heavily on drones for its counterterrorism strategy (some would say it has become the strategy) that it is twisting the concept of "war" and the definitions of "imminent threat" and "infeasibility of capture" designed to ensure that war is an exceptional state of affairs, and that lethal force outside of war is used as a last resort to interrupt immediate threats.
The leaked "white paper" says someone can be deemed an "imminent threat" even if there is no "clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future." Capture can be deemed "infeasible" if "it could not be physically effectuated during the relevant window of opportunity or if the relevant country were to decline to consent to a capture operation." But again, for good reason, the law does not permit killing a suspect simply because capture may be more difficult later or the country where he is won't let us in to capture him.
Nobody disputes that the president has the right—and the responsibility—to protect Americans from imminent threats. Sadly, the world is filled with "bad guys" who wish Americans ill, and some will eventually hatch plots that could become an imminent threat. But few would want to empower this—or any—president with the authority to go around disposing of "bad guys" about whom we have no clear evidence that they are currently plotting to kill Americans.
At his confirmation hearing, Brennan should begin a robust debate with Congress and the American public about the proposed drone playbook and the rules governing the policy he has overseen. It's important to do that now, before the precedent established sends us down a road we would not want other nations to follow.