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Sending in the drones

Posted: July 6, 2012 5:06 p.m.
Updated: July 9, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Congress is hotly debating media leaks about President Barack Obama’s “kill list” of terrorists to be targeted by unmanned drones. They should be debating the drone policy itself.

Just to be clear, I’m not anti-drone. I am an Army veteran. If a flying robot can accomplish what otherwise would require an invasion of ground troops, I say, send in the drones.

In that feeling, I’m hardly alone. An ABC-Washington Post poll earlier this year found an overwhelming 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s drone policy.

Over the last three years, the Obama administration has carried out at least 294 covert drone strikes in Pakistan alone, according to the New America Foundation’s online drones database. That’s more than five times the 44 approved under President George W. Bush, under whose watch the weapon was developed. Drone wars also have expanded to Yemen and other terrorist hangouts.

The foundation compiles its data from news sources because the administration refuses to discuss the program for national security reasons. The secrecy is understandable but also a problem, because sometimes our drones hit the wrong target. Congress needs to assert itself to hold the executive branch accountable in this war, which it authorized.

The most infamous example of a tragic drone error came in March of last year that killed more than 40 civilians attending a tribal gathering in the Pakistani region of North Waziristan, which is reported to have received more drone attacks than any other region.

“The community is now plagued with fear,” said one survivor’s testimony reprinted in the current Harpers magazine from a lawsuit by the British human rights group Reprieve against their country’s cooperation with the U.S. drone war. “The tribal elders are afraid to gather together. People in the same family now sleep apart because they do not want their togetherness to be viewed suspiciously through the eye of the drone.”

But as unmanned drones have become the weapon of choice for surveillance and targeted killing in our war against terrorists, many questions have been raised about the policy’s legality, morality and effectiveness. Cloaked in secrecy, the program essentially had charged, tried and executed suspects, including at least one American citizen, without a hearing, a trial or official conviction.

To tighten up standards for such decisions, various news reports quoting unnamed sources have described President Obama as taking that decision into his own hands -- literally. The New York Times described the president perusing what were described as mug shots and brief biographies on terrorist “baseball cards” to choose who on a “kill list” would be targeted next for elimination by drone.

“Several were Americans,” the Times piece by Jo Becker and Scott Shane said. “Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years.”

This report and others ignited outrage in Congress, but more over the leaks than the questions about legality, morality or effectiveness that the stories raised.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, Obama’s former Republican opponent, introduced a Senate resolution calling for a special independent counsel to investigate the leaks, which he accused the administration of leaking in order to make the president look tough in an election year. Right. Not that McCain or his fellow Republicans would think of looking tough regarding Obama’s national security policy during an election year.

It would be more productive for Congress, which authorized the president’s war against terrorists, to pursue serious questions raised by the media accounts as to the policy’s effectiveness.

For example, one revelation in the Times story stands out regarding Obama’s “disputed method for counting civilian casualties.” His approach, the story says, “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” In other words, shoot first and ask questions later.

Congress and the White House need to review the decision-making behind drone strikes in light of presidential war powers and the rights of Congress and citizens. Accountability matters, even in an election year.

(Tribune Media Services did not submit a new Clarence Page column by deadline Friday. This column was written for publication June 17, but appears for the first time in the C-I today.)

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