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Time for 'A Full and Open Debate' About Drones

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Last week, in a rare public interview, Michael Leiter, the nation's counterterrorism chief, acknowledged that the government's drone and targeted killing strategy, which appears to have become a cornerstone of the Obama administration's "war on terror," demands "a full and open debate."

Leiter was responding to a question from Newsweek's Michael Isikoff about the fact that the Obama administration has said that it can target for killing certain U.S. citizens abroad based on their alleged connections to terrorism. The U.S. citizen and Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who now lives in Yemen, has been widely reported as a U.S. government target. Leiter said last week that the U.S. believes that Awlaki had a "direct operational role" in failed Christmas day bombing attempt on a plane over Detroit last year.

The idea that the U.S. would target for killing its own citizens, though, has outraged many critics, who claim that amounts to government-sponsored assassinations.

In fact, targeted killings may be legal in some circumstances, when the government can show that the killing is actually necessary in self-defense against some imminent attack, or that the target is an enemy belligerent who's fighting a war against the United States and therefore can lawfully be killed by U.S. forces. But the Obama administration (and the Bush administration before it) has never offered a real explanation of who it's targeting and why, and how it knows that those targets are either directly fighting the United States or about to launch an imminent attack against U.S. targets.

Even if it can't provide all the names and specific evidence in advance, the government could do far more to explain its targeting policy and the legal support for it. Although State Department officials have assured critics that the government is following the law, those assurances amount to a plea to the public to trust that the government is doing the right thing. Unfortunately, government actions over the last eight years surrounding the "war on terror" have demonstrated that "trust us" just isn't good enough.

Leiter has now publicly acknowledged the point. "[C]ertainly, the policy decisions about the ways in which we should or should not use force demand a full and open discussion," he told Isikooff. "And again, I think it's part of my appearance, here, I'm trying to answer the questions to the extent I can."

Still, Leiter didn't really answer the question. Of course, the questions are difficult, and to some extent the government may need to keep some of the facts classified for national security purposes. But it could provide a whole lot more information than it's providing now.

In the case of al-Awlaki, for example, who has already been named as a target, what information connects al-Awlaki to the failed Detroit bombing? And is this the only attempted terrorist incident he's believed to have been involved in? If so, that might qualify him as conspiring to commit mass murder, but an isolated incident wouldn't make him an actual enemy belligerent under the laws of war. Or, is the government claiming it can kill him in self-defense? If so, it would have to demonstrate some real reason to believe he's an imminent threat.

Some critics of the targeting policy suggest that Awlaki, like any other suspect, deserves due process and should be arrested, charged and tried - not simply killed. While that treatment might be a good idea if the circumstances allow for it, if Awlaki is truly an enemy belligerent fighting the United States, then the laws of war don't require that. As Leiter pointed out: "Just to be clear, the U.S. government through the Department of Defense goes out and attempts to target and kill people, a lot of people, who haven't been indicted."

Of course, those are people who are (presumably) actively participating in a war against us. The government cannot simply target people it suspects of, say, financing terrorism or providing material support for terrorist actions. It needs to acknowledge that publicly.

Asked how the U.S. responds to the fact that several recently convicted terrorists, such as Faisal Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi, have said they were motivated to attack the United States due to the U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Leiter acknowledged the challenge. "I certainly will not try to argue that some of our actions have not led to some people being radicalized." He added: "That doesn't mean you don't do it. That means you craft a fuller strategy to explain why you're doing that and try to minimize the likelihood that individuals are going to be radicalized."

Explaining the strategy and its justification is actually the key to minimizing the likelihood that the strategy will motivate others to become radicalized. And that's exactly the part of the U.S. targeted killing strategy that's still missing.

Update: This piece by Imtiaz Gul posted on NPR and Foreign Policy underscores the point that the lack of transparency on the Obama administration's drone program has escalated the debate over its legality and will likely continue to foment anger in Pakistan and other countries where drones are striking.

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