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Predators Over Pakistan

The U.S. drone campaign is effective—and legal. Why won’t the Obama administration’s lawyers defend it?

Mar 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 24 • By KENNETH ANDERSON
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n All of the above fall within the traditional American legal view of “self-defense” in international law, and “vital national security interests” in U.S. domestic law.

There are good reasons for Republicans and centrist Democrats to make common cause in defending these propositions. On the one hand, they should want to aggressively protect the administration against its external critics—the domestic and international left—who are eager to prosecute Americans for their actions in the war on terror. They should also want to make clear that in defending drone strikes, they are defending the American (and not just the Obama) legal and strategic position. Moreover, it will be the American view of domestic and international law for future administrations, Democratic and Republican.

At the same time, congressional Republicans and centrist Democrats need to put Obama’s senior legal officials on the record and invite them to defend their own administration, defend it to the full extent that the Obama administration’s actions require. Which is to say, Congress needs to hear publicly from senior administration lawyers and officials who might be personally less-than-enthused about targeted killings of terrorists and not eager to endorse them publicly, or to do so only with hedged and narrow legal rationales from which they can later walk away.

Consider, for instance, the diffidence of Harold Koh, the legal adviser of the Department of State. In an informal public discussion with his predecessor, John Bellinger, aired on C-SPAN on February 17, he was asked about drones and targeted killings and declined to say that the practice was lawful. (Granted, it was in an unscripted setting, which cannot be taken as anyone’s last word and on which it would be unfair to place too much weight.) All he said was that if he concluded that it was unlawful, he would, if he thought it appropriate, resign his position. He added that he remained at his post. The statement falls far short of the defense one might hope for from such a high-ranking administration lawyer. More than a year into the new administration, that ought surely to strike the general counsels of the CIA, the Pentagon, the Director of National Intelligence, the NSC, and other agencies directly conducting these activities as somewhat less than reassuring.

In fact, the administration’s top lawyers should offer a public legal defense of its policies, and congressional Republicans and Democrats should insist on such a defense. This is partly to protect the full use-of-force tools of national security for future administrations, by affirming the traditional U.S. view of their legality. But it is also to protect and reassure the personnel of the CIA, NSC, and intelligence and military agencies who carry out these policies that they are not just effective but lawful policies of the U.S. government and will be publicly defended as such by their superiors.



ven as the Obama administration increasingly relies on Predator strikes for its counterterrorism strategy, the international legal basis of drone warfare (more precisely, its perceived international legal legitimacy) is eroding from under the administration’s feet—largely through the U.S. government’s inattention and unwillingness to defend its legal grounds, and require its own senior lawyers to step up and defend it as a matter of law, legal policy, and legal diplomacy. On the one hand, the president takes credit for the policy—as frankly he should—as taking the fight to the enemy. His vice president positively beams with pride over the administration’s flock of Predator goslings. On the other hand, the Obama administration appears remarkably sanguine about the campaign gearing up in the “international law community” aimed at undermining the legal basis of targeted killing as well as its broad political legitimacy, and ultimately at stigmatizing the use of Predators as both illegal and a coward’s weapon.

Stigmatizing the technology and the practice of targeted killing is only half of it, though. The other half is to undermine the idea that the CIA may use force and has the authority to act covertly under orders from the president and disclosure to Congress, as long provided in U.S. law. The aim is to create a legal and political perception that, under international law, all uses of force must be overt—either as law enforcement or as armed conflict conducted by uniformed military.

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