3 questions to ask about US drone policy

White House spokesman Jay Carney has defended the Obama administration's controversial drone policy, asserting: “These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise.” But rather than closing the debate, that statement frames the three essential questions Americans should be asking about US drone policy.

2. Is it ethical?

Moral ambiguity about US drone policy arises from the gray area between law enforcement and warfare. The “law enforcement” approach seeks to foresee threats and retaliate for attacks. It polices and reacts within the traditional model of defense and war.

On the other hand, a “war against terror” has no endpoint, and its theater of operations is everywhere on earth. The effort to defeat Al Qaeda and its affiliates is more like a fight against criminal gangs than a conventional war. There will be never be a complete safe haven from terrorism, and there will never be an armistice.

Such a fight requires flexibility and reach, beyond the traditional parameters of war. And so the strongest ethical argument in favor of drone strikes boils down to efficiency. The virtues of US drone policy include precision targeting, limited collateral damage, and preventing troops from going into full combat mode and being killed.

But each of these virtues has its limits. We know of targeting errors, tragic accounts of unintentional killing of innocent bystanders, and the fear that drones turn foreign public opinion against the United States. When the stakes are so high, is the efficiency argument good enough?

Of particular ethical concern are the questions of due process and accountability. Who makes decisions about who the targets will be and whether to execute a strike? What is the procedure and the oversight for those calls? Again we see blurred lines.

It is significant that the drone program is an executive action run by the CIA, largely sheltered from international laws of war. CIA accountability comes through Congressional oversight – a mechanism that may not be optimally suited for creating, monitoring, and enforcing guidelines for drone operations. As this oversight evolves, it is imperative that American values are safeguarded through proper checks and balances on the CIA’s drone program. 

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