Drone killing must be examined

Penning suspected terrorists up at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba was a bad idea, President Barack Obama has said (although he has reneged on a promise to close the prison there). Making suspected terrorists think they might be about to die by drowning is wrong, his administration has held.

But actually killing people, including Americans, with strikes from remote-controlled drone aircraft – with little evidence, and no proceedings other than an OK from the White House – that’s all right. At least, it is Obama’s policy.

No one outside the White House, the intelligence community and some in the military knows how many people have been executed by Obama’s order. The White House assures us the killings were necessary to safeguard Americans.

Some in Congress are not comfortable with the ethical contradictions in Obama’s judge, jury and executioner drone policy. Lawmakers of both parties have expressed serious reservations, including reasonable ones about the constitutionality of executing American citizens without trials.

Good. Again, the validity of looking into executions by drone is indicated by the wide bipartisan nature of concern. Senators and representatives are right to be concerned about the scheme.

The president is apparently feeling some pressure on this subject. In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, he made a vague reference to being more transparent with Congress about counterterrorism in the months ahead.

“I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way,” Obama said.

Again, good, but of course he will be judged on what he does rather than what he says. It’s worrisome that his choice to head the CIA, John Brennan, helped manage the drone program and defends it as more humane than bombs or artillery. Well, sure, but it’s a heck of a lot less humane than monitoring terrorists, ending the war in Afghanistan, robustly defending ourselves from attack and taking the high road as a nation of laws and peace.

We think this program is morally dubious. When our government wields such power as these drones, the American people need assurance of accountability, responsibility and human respect, as described in our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

As of now, our government’s rules of engagement for drone warfare seem pretty wide open.

Last year it was reported that the Obama administration reduced its “collateral damage” – an intentionally oblique term meaning innocent people killed alongside enemy targets – by redefining the term “enemy combatant” to include all males of combat age in whatever country they blasted with a drone strike. So after it targeted a building with one known terrorist and a bunch of other people, all dead males between, say, their teens and their 40s would be lumped in as enemy combatants, not innocents, although they may have done nothing offensive to our country. There’s no way such practices can be described as just warfare.

Now a report by the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child says that in the four years since Obama became president, the U.S.’s escalated war in Afghanistan has killed children numbering into the hundreds, “due notably to reported lack of precautionary measures and indiscriminate use of force.” The report noted that drone airstrikes were part of that.

In addition to collateral damage, evidence suggests some of the people intentionally killed with drones are not what most Americans would consider enemies of the state. In a lengthy July 2012 article in Esquire magazine, Tom Junod tells of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old native-born American citizen. The boy lived in the U.S. until he was 7, when his father, Anwar al-Awlaki, moved the family back to Yemen and started preaching hatred against the U.S. Anwar, also a U.S. citizen by birth, was killed by a targeted drone strike in September 2011. Two weeks later, a separate drone strike killed Abdulrahman – a minor who hadn’t seen his father since he was 14 and who had never been charged with a crime.

Even if you approve of the current drone warfare, you have to admit that it’s a much bigger deal than one would know from talking to Americans on the street. Too few of us think about or discuss these killings, which are carried out in our name. It’s part of a wider, sad ignorance; we like to forget we’re a nation at war.

It’s also disturbing that the drones are over our heads in training flights, invisible and inaudible, operating out of a base in Syracuse. They aren’t armed, but could they be in the future? And could, at some point, law-enforcement officers be allowed to tap into their spying capability? It’s hard to say, since federal policies on this kind of thing have evolved along with technology. Would the Fourth Amendment’s provision against unreasonable search and seizure prevent that? So far it isn’t preventing the New York City police’s robust stop-and-frisk and spying efforts.

We should all be talking about this more, first. Second, we should tell our representatives in Washington that the Executive Branch needs more checks and balances with regard to drones.

“We must enlist our values in the fight,” the president said Tuesday. Yes, more than we do now.