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A rightful airing of Obama drone policy

In the latest concern over war tactics against terrorists, President Obama had to release his guidelines for the use of drones in targeted killings. To help ensure constancy and consistency in civic values during wartime, Congress must openly debate this policy.

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    An unmanned US Predator drone flies over southern Afghanistan on a moon-lit night in 2010.
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Democracies, like people, are only as strong as their fidelity to their values, which is why President Obama’s guidelines for drone warfare, just disclosed, needs close scrutiny by Congress.

Any war requires the public to give its buy-in for the tactics of war, especially in the struggle against Al Qaeda, which is as much a contest of ideas as it is of force and stealth.

Yet Americans have not had much debate over Mr. Obama’s heavy reliance on Predator drones for the targeted killings of terrorists. How do we know for sure if the Central Intelligence Agency does enough to prevent the loss of innocent life in a drone strike inside Pakistan? What level of evidence does the president use to place an American on a drone hit list? Why can’t the courts be a check on the president’s choices?

Since 9/11, two presidents have employed a range of antiterrorism tactics – from torture to indefinite detentions to drones – to protect Americans while also trying to protect basic civil values. Obama has adopted many of President Bush’s tactics while rejecting others. Both claimed legal authority for their actions.

Yet as protectors in chief, both presidents also resorted to the doctrine of “state secrets privilege” to hide many of their tactics from the courts, Congress, and the public.

This secrecy, while often expedient in deterring real threats, does not help maintain a constancy over time in upholding civic values. Americans need more open debate on issues like drone policy to build up the kind of political consensus that can find a balance between war tactics and the basic values of democracy, such as due process of law.

Congress remains rightly concerned, for example, about the 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and an Al Qaeda operative. This was the first American ever targeted for extrajudicial lethal force. Questions remain about whether he posed an imminent threat and whether Obama should have sought court approval for the killing.

Debates over tactics need not always be conducted behind closed doors. With elections every two years, Americans need an airing of these difficult legal and moral issues in order to find a consistency in applying civic values in a time of war.

Mistakes by wartime presidents are all too easily made. President Franklin Roosevelt erred in the internment of 120,000 Japanese-American citizens during World War II. President Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War still rouses legal debate. In 1976, after a CIA plot to kill Fidel Castro was revealed, President Ford had to issue an executive order outlawing political assassination.

So as Congress takes up consideration of both the drone policy as well as the nomination of counterterrorism chief John Brennan to be CIA director, it should be sure to engage the public widely. The “war on terror” has been going on for more than a decade, and could last for years. It can be won sooner if America unites in a fidelity to the values of its founding while balancing those values against the demands of fighting a war.

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