From David Cole:

What would President Romney do with a drone? The New York Times reported Sunday that this question apparently haunted the White House so much that in the weeks before the election it raced to establish “explicit rules” and “clear standards and procedures” for the use of unmanned drones for targeted killings. It should not be surprising, I suppose, that the administration was less comfortable with someone else pushing buttons to kill people than with its own exercise of that authority. As one candid, though anonymous, official stated, “There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands.”

The content of the rules remains a tightly-held mystery. Apparently they are so secret that they are toted around from office to office in a single “playbook,” and not even shared on the government’s secure email reserved for classified material.

But what is most disturbing is the news that it took a possible transfer of power to push the White House to establish such rules. We’ve been assured by multiple Obama administration spokespersons over the years that its targeted killing program is fully lawful, and subject to “rigorous standards and process of review,” as Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan put it in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in April. Yet only on the eve of a potential transition did the administration think to reduce these rigorous standards and procedures to writing?…

But a possible transition from Obama to Romney was not the only, or even the most important, deadline in play. What about each and every decision over the past four years to authorize a remote-control execution, without trial, without charges, without a defense? Surely each of those actions presented the decision makers with an even more urgent deadline: one would think that before giving the green light to such a momentous act, you would want the “clear rules and procedures” to be in place. Yet the Obama administration has evidently seen fit to make hundreds of such life-or-death decisions, and to authorize more than three hundred strikes, without first developing “explicit rules” or “clear standards and procedures.”…

The real problem is not that there are no guidelines written down—though the administration itself seems now to acknowledge that what it has is insufficient—but that we the people don’t know what they are. The idea that the president can authorize the killing of a human being far from any traditional battlefield without any publically accessible set of constraints, conditions, or requirements is unacceptable in a country committed to the rule of law.

"We are likely in agreement -- language often gets in the way. For example, I ..."

An Ancient Document (RJS)
"I worry, a little, we emphasize the literalness of these stories too much. For example, ..."

An Ancient Document (RJS)
"Thanks, Scot. Any idea when the other volumes will begin to appear?"

A Series For Preachers
"I do not find the metaphor of the river to be helpful. Don't most people ..."

An Ancient Document (RJS)

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Thank you for writing this. The use of drones have been ignored by all Americans because it is perceived as a few things:
    1.) Killing the bad guys
    2.) Removes any risk of an American death
    3.) Creating manufacturing jobs and improving technology

    Sadly, in our pursuit to minimize our risk in war we have created a power possibly greater than the atomic bomb. Countries do not want to use the atomic bomb, meanwhile no leader seems to have any qualms about using a drone. With the atomic bomb there are many risks to the one who uses it; nuclear reactor problems, plumb clouds, etc. Whereas drones do not have the same direct risk.

    I would like to see rules developed for the use of drones put into the U.S. Constitution, as well as become part of an international treaty (such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty).

  • EricMichaelSay

    I would like to see a worldwide ban on weaponized drones…

  • Tim OK

    i would like to see these “rules”, because I would like to see ANY justification for the use of drones.

    there’s a part of me that thinks, ‘well, this is inevitable anyways, so we might as well come up with some rules for it. The other part of me thinks/knows it’s incredibly dangerous and portends tremendous evil.

    Bill Maher said yesterday that, if someone (eg, Iran) were to use drones against us, we would call that terrorism. I think he’s right

  • scotmcknight

    Eric, I agree.

  • I find it pretty ridiculous that the Whitehouse was moved to establish rules simply because they were worried about what someone else might do with a drone – as if they have not, or could not misuse them themselves.

  • Mark

    If the United States was “a country committed to the rule of law” in the way required to address the problem Mr. Cole writes, much that is done in secret in Washington, D.C., would not be happening, domestically as well as globally. Part of our national myth is being “a nation of laws, not men,” but that is less and less true of our political system.

  • Patrick


    You figured it out.

    The weird thing is knowingly killing someone who is not armed or knowingly killing “collateral damage” is murder if an infantry soldier does it. The high and mighty don’t prosecute themselves.