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President Obama finally admits the need for tougher rules and oversight of drone attacks.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
The allure of unmanned drone attacks in a post-9/11 world is undeniable. The split-second elimination of a terrorist. The minimized risk to American soldiers. The avoidance of messy invasions that lead to still messier long-term foreign entanglements. The marginal number of civilian deaths compared to traditional military operations. Or so we are assured.
But in the rush to purge one target after another via antiseptic, high-tech assassinations, it has been too easy to neglect questions that would never be left unanswered were troops and aircraft carriers being deployed.
Those questions are now being asked, and Americans must confront the reality that drone killings of U.S. citizens and foreigners within the borders of other sovreign nations can never be risk-free. They have radicalized a new generation of terrorists and alienated allies and potential allies. They have eroded the legal and moral principles at the core of our democracy. And they threaten to drag the country into volatile conflicts they are ostensibly helping us to avoid.
President Obama last week began, belatedly, to implement more rigorous oversight of a drones program he has both criticized and abused. A new policy states that drones will be employed to kill only those deemed to be an imminent threat and whose capture is impossible. He said drones will be limited to instances in which there is a “near certainty” that civilians will not be harmed.
The announcement of those rules underscores the troubling lack of controls in the past. In acknowledging for the first time that a U.S. drone was used to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, Obama revealed the terrorist activities that made the U.S. citizen a target. But the president also admitted that three other Americans have been inadvertently killed by drones. He made no guess as to how many of the estimated 3,000 total casualties were also accidental.
It’s naïve to suggest that counterterrorism operations be publicly vetted in advance. But greater accountability is needed through disclosure of past actions. Americans have a right to know who is being killed in their name and why.
A fragmented but still lethal network of terrorist cells, combined with technology that enables effortless bloodshed, have forever changed our pursuit of national security. Obama last week acknowledged his struggles to weigh the trade-offs in this frightening new reality. That sort of gray thinking has been scarce thus far, and its absence is the greatest national security threat of all.
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