If you want to better understand the best and worst aspects of the American system of government and the morality that underpins it, you should follow one of the most fascinating developments taking place in Washington these days: the debate that has opened on the secretive world of the government’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to kill suspects who are accused of being senior members of Al-Qaeda. Among those killed are American citizens such as Anwar al-Awlaki, who was assassinated in Yemen in 2011.
The issue has been spurred by the increased pace of drones being used in recent years to kill targets in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Senate hearings on the nomination of John Brennan to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He has been directly involved in overseeing many of the drone assassinations in recent years, and his nomination has spurred new requests from American members of Congress for more information on the administration’s legal justifications for this use of drones.
The Obama administration has just directed the Justice Department to release to two congressional intelligence committees classified documents that discuss the legal justifications for using drones and other means to assassinate suspected terrorist leaders. That justification claims that the U.S. government can kill any person around the world, including American citizens, if “an informed high-level official” decided that the target was a senior Al-Qaeda official who “posed an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States,” and if his capture was not feasible.
Some Americans are asking for greater civilian oversight of the decisions to kill suspects, perhaps by creating a special court similar to the one that has long operated to allow the executive branch to tap into the phone conversations of suspected criminals. The reasoning here is that if a panel of impartial and sensible judges reviews the available evidence and approves the use of telephone wire-tapping or the killing of Americans or other nationals, this overcomes concern that the civil rights of suspects are being denied.
Some members of Congress have requested more detailed legal arguments from the White House in order to fully debate the matter and make sure that “the president’s power to deliberately kill American citizens is subject to appropriate limitations and safeguards,” in the words of Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. This reflects the best aspects of the American way of government, where different branches of government check and balance each other to minimize the abuse of power, and ensure compliance with constitutional safeguards of citizen rights, including the most fundamental human right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s life.
The ugly side of the same American morality and government policy, however, finds it perfectly legitimate to kill anyone suspected of being an imminent threat to the U.S., without subjecting the charges against the targeted person to the full protection of the law and constitutional safeguards that make the U.S. such an attractive country for so many people around the world.
The critics of the government justification of the drone killings focus on both the morality and legality of these actions and their efficacy. Critics say the administration’s definition of what is an “imminent threat” is far too broad and vague, can be defined in any manner the executive branch wants, and is not subject to any external check on this authority to kill at will. These criticisms mirror similar objections that were expressed to the George W. Bush administration’s use of water-boarding and other torture techniques, which were also justified on the grounds that they were used only to prevent an “imminent” attack against U.S. targets.
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International have questioned the administration’s justifications on the grounds that they are “chilling” and violate fundamental human rights. Other critics argue on the basis of efficacy and say the drone killings do not necessarily serve the purpose of reducing threats against the United States, for in many cases where drone strikes kill innocent civilians they increase anti-American antagonism and perhaps push recruits to join anti-American groups like Al-Qaeda.
There is great merit to the political debate within the U.S. about how the legislative and judicial branches of government can play a greater oversight role in the use of drones to assassinate Americans and others who are deemed a threat to the country. This reflects the finest aspects of the American political system that protects citizens against excessive use or abuse of power by the government and its military and police agencies. The dark side of this same morality, however, is that Americans still believe that their armed forces can attack any country in the world at will, and kill anyone they suspect of being a threat, with executive branch officials and military officers acting as judge, jury and executioner at the same time.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. You can follow him on Twitter @RamiKhouri.