Las Vegas Sun

April 19, 2015

Currently: 69° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account


Wrong on drone hits

Another view?

View more of the Las Vegas Sun's opinion section:

Editorials - the Sun's viewpoint.

Columnists - local and syndicated writers.

Letters to the editor - readers' views.

Have your own opinion? Write a letter to the editor.

If George W. Bush had told us that the war on terrorism gave him the right to execute an American citizen overseas with a missile fired from a drone aircraft, without due process or judicial review, I’d have gone ballistic. It makes no difference that the president making this chilling claim is Barack Obama. What’s wrong is wrong.

The moral and ethical questions posed by the advent of drone warfare — which amounts to assassination by remote control — are painfully complex. We had better start working out some answers because, as an administration spokesman told me recently, drone attacks are “the new normal” in the ongoing struggle against terrorist groups such as al-Qaida.

But one of the few bright lines we can and should recognize is that in the exceedingly rare instances when a U.S. citizen may be targeted, our government bears a special burden.

The Obama administration acknowledged as much in a secret Justice Department “white paper” obtained this week by NBC News. The document laid out a legal argument that the president, without oversight, may order a “lethal operation” against a citizen who is known to be a “senior operational leader” of al-Qaida or an affiliated group.

This is not an academic question. In 2011, a CIA drone attack in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who had become a leading figure in the terrorist franchise known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Two weeks later, another drone attack killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son.

Awlaki was believed to have been directly involved in the near-miss “Underwear Bomber” plot to down a civilian airliner on Christmas Day 2009, as well as the planting of two bombs — fortunately, discovered before they could explode — on Chicago-bound cargo planes in 2010. Perpetrators of several other attacks cited Awlaki’s fiery sermons and, in some cases, his personal messages as their inspiration.

I shed no tears for him. But as the Justice Department document admits, U.S. citizens have constitutional rights. I am deeply troubled by the notion that the president can unilaterally decide those rights no longer apply.

The white paper specifies the conditions that must be met before a citizen is targeted for obliteration. Among them is that he or she must be planning an “imminent” terrorist attack. The document then argues for a remarkably elastic definition of imminence — which, you may be surprised to learn, apparently does not mean “in the immediate future.”

That part is shaky, but I accept that Awlaki was a legitimate target. What I don’t accept is that the president or a “high-level official” gets to make the call without judicial oversight. When the government wants to violate a citizen’s right to privacy with wiretaps and other forms of electronic surveillance, a judge from a special panel — the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court — has to give approval. Surely there should be at least as much judicial review when the government wants to violate a citizen’s right not to be blown to smithereens.

This oversight would occur when the decision was made to place a citizen on the “kill list” of targets — meaning there could be no “hot pursuit” scenario in which a drone had a target in its sights but the aircraft’s controllers had to get a judge’s approval before firing. Keep in mind that the question of targeting a citizen would come up only rarely. Also keep in mind that the “drone court,” like the surveillance court, would surely grant almost every government request.

The practical impact of providing for judicial review in targeting citizens would be practically nil. But doing so would help us establish a conceptual and legal framework for this new, unsettling form of warfare.

The one thing we know is this: There will be drones.

No president could become aware that specific enemies are planning attacks against the United States and not take action. This would be an unconscionable dereliction of duty. If the plot is being developed in a place such as Yemen or Somalia, what are the options? Order a Special Forces commando raid, risking American lives? Mount a full-scale invasion? Or send up a flying robot, armed with a missile, and foil the plot by eliminating the plotters?

As drones become more sophisticated, the range of missions for which they are used will grow. And as the United States demonstrates the military potential of drones, other nations will build their own robot fleets. We need to realize that the future is now.

Eugene Robinson is a columnist for the Washington Post.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 6 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. Alleluia. Mark the day and time. Mr. Page FINALLY got something right here. Hip hip hurrah.
    I opine the prospective CIA Director did a good job navigating through these issues in his Senate testimony.


  2. My sincere apologies Mr. Page, I should have said Mr. Robinson. But please take note. Maybe you can profit by the comment too!


  3. Awlaki needed killing. Drones are the latest in the technology of warfare. However they must be controlled by human effort, otherwise they are inanimate objects, just like guns.

    Why do Americans think the Constitution "protects" someone when they are in a foreign country? Your PASSPORT affords some "protection", but Americans are subject to the laws and customs of the country they are visiting, and are there at the host country's discretion. Some, or all, of our Constitutional "rights" are irrelevant if you break the laws of a host country. That is one reason the Military in host countries has a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to afford some protection to the troops stationed there.

    Awlaki forfeited his "Constitutional Rights" when he decided to take up residence in Yemen, and become a leading player in a terrorist organization. He was a criminal in the eyes of the Yemeni government as well as our own government. Treason is a Capital offense in America. We could have subpoenaed Awlaki to appear in court in the US. Does anyone believe he would have showed up? "Due process" sounds all warm and fuzzy, but the reality is we ARE AT WAR. Skells like Anwar Awlaki know what time it is. He accepted the risks, and got what he deserved: vaporization by a Hellfire missile.

  4. Well, the Drones are useful technology. But unless we have authorization from that country, it could be construed as an act of war, an act of aggression particularly when bystanders, family, others are killed or wounded. The think with any terrorist cell is that when you take out the leader, a new leader emerges. What is the point in targeting so many people? Now, if we can get a stealth (invisible) drone to fly into Iran.....

  5. Some fail to distinguish between terrorists who attack citizens unable to defend themselves and combatants whose adversaries are armed and as such deserve humane treatment.
    Rather than discussing the use of torture and drones on those whose actions cease them to be recognized as citizens we should be seeking better explanation for the endless wars forced upon us.

  6. Mr Lind: Are you really arguing that our government is free to ignore our Constitutional rights when we are overseas? Do we really want to allow a federal official to go overseas, point and say "You! Against that Wall! NOW!!? And all the Feds have to worry about is the reaction of the foreign government (if any)?

    The issue here is NOT the response of a foreign government to the presence of an American on its soil. The issue is what protects us from the strong-arm tactics of certain members of our own government when we are overseas. Right now, the answer is "Not a F.....g thing!"