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CHANGE MY MIND: What Do You Think of Obama's Drone War?

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A Justice Department memo obtained this week by NBC News revealed that U.S. citizens who engage in terrorist activities anywhere are fair game for drones:

The President has the authority to respond to the imminent threat posed by al-Qa'ida and its associated forces, arising from his constitutional responsibility to protect the country, the inherent right of the United States to national self defense under international law, Congress's authorization of the use of all necessary and appropriate military force against this enemy, and the existence of an armed conflict with al-Qa'ida under international law. Based on these authorities, the President may use force against al-Qa'ida and its associated forces.

The leaked memo immediately brought to a head the controversy that has been gathering throughout the Obama presidency on the use of drones. Liberal Democrats have long condemned the policy, and many conservative Republicans have come to join them with this latest revelation.

Where do you stand?

In our ongoing popular feature, "Change My Mind," HuffPost challenged former Bush staffer David Frum, now a Daily Beast/Newsweek contributor, to debate foreign policy guru Steve Clemons, of The Atlantic, on the statement: "Obama's drone policy is a threat to American liberty."


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Obama's drone policy is a threat to American liberty.

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Who makes the better argument?

Steve Clemons Editor at Large of The Atlantic and founder and senior fellow of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

Presidents sometimes have to do terrible things and authorize what appear to be morally repugnant actions in order to protect the people and assets of the United States. We have no dispute about that -- whether we are talking about Lincoln's orders during the U.S. Civil War or the ongoing effort to shut down al Qaeda's leadership and operations.

Clearly, when President Obama authorized surgical drone strikes against the American-born, Yemen-based cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the White House believed it could not "capture" this person, a self-confessed terrorist planning in real time further attacks on the U.S. and American citizens.

Killing Awlaki by drone -- without due process afforded to every U.S. citizen as a constitutionally guaranteed human right -- was necessarily controversial and deeply vexing for our society and the president. It's absolutely correct that we all should feel deeply conflicted by drones and their use -- not celebrating the near-term security we think their use is generating. There are significant costs in terms of the glue that holds our nation together as well as the long-term blowback risks from drones.

I could support the controversial act of the White House-authorized killing of Awlaki if this was an extremely rare instance in which significant numbers of lives and broader national security equities were at stake. However, we are talking not about the killing of one U.S. citizen; we are discussing the institutionalization and routinization of this drone-killing power against other potential U.S. citizens, as well as other terrorist targets more broadly.

From my perspective, this is time for people to read again Hannah Arendt's important work on Adolf Eichmann framing what she termed "the banality of evil." Arendt's essential thesis was that ordinary Germans living their daily lives without hate and core ethnic grievances nonetheless acquiesced to and empowered the Nazis and their killing of so many innocents in the Holocaust. People just went along with the slaughter.

The issue of U.S. citizen targets aside, there seems to be a growing banality in American society about the extra-territorial deployment of drone attacks, the killing of many innocents, with little concern about the fast-approaching date when our enemies, state and non-state, will have drones themselves. According to data compiled by the New America Foundation, between 2004 and 2012, there have been 337 CIA drone attacks in Pakistan in which the non-militant casualty rate is somewhere between 18-23%. In other words, according to terrorist tracker Peter Bergen, who runs this shop at New America, drone attacks -- which often appear costless to U.S. military planners and can be managed at a remote distance from the horrors deployed -- generated somewhere between 500 and 700 innocent people were killed. The frequency of drone attacks has ticked up in 2013.

I believe that it is civil society's job to declare unacceptable the killing of innocents -- no matter what the broader tactical gains against terrorists and their operations may be. The White House should not make a routine of acceptable collateral damage against innocent people despite its task of fighting al Qaeda.

On the subject of the Obama administration's white paper outlining the specific circumstances under which a lethal drone strike can be authorized against an American citizen, what worries me is that establishing a process for making these decisions creates a formula for extrajudicial execution. We have seen what terrible horrors such formulas created in the former Soviet Union, in Mao's China, Ceausescu's Romania, Nazi Germany, and more. Giving the power to a nation's chief executive to kill without due process that country's own citizens could create a slippery slope to many other morally repugnant short cuts involving human lives.

Some years ago, I was privileged to join a small dinner of about 10 people that included General David Petraeus, then Commander of CENTCOM, and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). Petraeus asked Feinstein whether the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had discussed potentially stripping of their citizenship U.S. citizens who were identified as terrorists. Senator Feinstein said no, the Committee had not discussed this but then added that she thought that this would be a terrible idea, a "slippery slope" as she said then, that could lead to many unexpected legal and moral nightmares for the nation.

It seems that the legal infrastructure for attacking terrorist-identified U.S. citizens has proceeded, particularly given that General Petraeus ran the CIA, but Senator Feinstein, in my view, was absolutely on target that the legislature, executive branch and America's judiciary should not be making a routine -- should not be making it easier in any sense -- for the White House to take extraordinary, lethal actions against a U.S. citizen, terrorist or not.

A political science professor of mine long ago, the late and great Japan expert Hans Baerwald, said that one never really knows the norms of a political system unless it is observed under stress. 9/11 and the rise of non-state terrorism has produced an entirely new kind of war -- gray wars with gray rules -- but it is not wise for the U.S. in times of stress to easily walk away from core human rights and due process tenets that I believe are fundamental to the DNA of this nation.

Embracing Obama's drone memo would take us down a potentially dangerous, self-destructive slippery slope.

David Frum Contributor, Newsweek and The Daily Beast

During the Civil War, Union snipers aimed at Confederate officers. They did so because killing officers demoralized and disorganized rebel units, a valid military necessity. Every one of those Confederate officers was an American citizen. None of them got a jury trial. If they came into view ... bang.

Was it a war crime to shoot down a Confederate officer?

Why not?

Within the technology of the time, that person was "targeted" just as surely as any Yemeni al Qaeda operative. The sniper didn't know the officer's name or life story. But in the words of the painter Winslow Homer, who witnessed sniper operations during the 1862 Peninsula campaign: sharp-shooting "struck me as being as near murder as anything I could think of in connection with the army."

War means fighting, and fighting means killing. Those were the words of General Sherman 150 years ago, and they remain true today. They are terrible words, because war is a terrible thing. But there is one thing even more terrible than war, and that is failing to defend your country against those who have decided to make war against you.

On September 18, 2001, Congress authorized the president to take military action against the terrorist organization that struck the United States on 9/11.

[T]he President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

That resolution remains in force today. It assigns to the president -- not to some judge -- the authority to determine who committed the 9/11 attacks. It assigns to the president -- not a jury -- the responsibility to prevent any future acts of international terrorism. It does not exempt American citizens from the list of "nations, organizations, or persons" against whom the war is to be waged.

Let's make the discussion less abstract, more real world.

Steve, I don't think you'd dispute that Anwar al-Awlaki -- the American-born cleric killed by drones in Yemen in September 2011 -- was an active and important member of al Qaeda. He preached to three of the 9/11 hijackers in Falls Church, Virginia. He e-mailed extensively with Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood gunman. He recruited Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian underwear bomber.

If a team of Navy Seals had tracked al-Awlaki into Yemen, then airdropped in front of him and shot him dead, there'd be no more criticism than there was of the similar operation against Osama bin Laden. Criticism seems primarily to turn on the fact that the president used a drone instead of a Seal team. But that's just a matter of using new technologies that put fewer American lives at risk, to achieve the ends stipulated by Congress a decade ago.

Executive power run amok? On the contrary: President Obama is using military power precisely and judiciously, in full compliance with law, against people who have chosen war against their own country. The way we make war changes with the times. The war-making power of the presidency remains essential to national security. And we should recognize that necessity whether we happened to vote for the president of the day or not.



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