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Drones: What Wasn't Asked at the Debate

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Drone warfare was the subject of only one question posed by Bob Schieffer at the third presidential debate:

MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you, Governor, because we know President Obama’s position on this, what is — what is your position on the use of drones?

This question was not entirely without utility, because in his response, Mitt Romney stated the following:

MR. ROMNEY: Well, I believe that we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world. And it’s widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.

In a campaign designed to highlight differences between the parties' candidates, a demonstration of the parity between those candidates on this critical issue is valuable.

That said, Schieffer clearly missed an excellent opportunity to push Obama and Romney in a way that would have educated voters and revealed the candidates' thought process concerning a crucially important topic. Here is a list of relevant questions that could have been asked of either Romney or Obama:

1) Why has the administration fought the ACLU's efforts to make America's use of drones more transparent, and what justifies its opposition?

2) The Obama administration has authorized hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan alone, resulting in the deaths of numerous civilians. Why is it justifiable to kill such a large number of civilians in the name of protecting civilians from terrorism?

3) Did John Brennan lie when he claimed in June, 2011 that U.S. counter-terrorism activities had not resulted in “a single collateral death" during the previous year, or was he employing a controversial accounting method (see 6 below)?

4) Are so-called "double-tap" drone strikes morally justifiable, considering that the United States has criticized terrorist groups for using the tactic?

5) Can the administration (or Romney) guarantee the accuracy of "signature" strikes used against targets “even when the identity of those who could be killed is not known"?

6) Can the administration (or Romney) defend its practice of counting “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants" as revealed by Jo Becker and Scott Shane in the New York Timeslast May?

7) How does the administration (or Romney) view the September report authored jointly by scholars at Stanford and NYU arguing that America's use of drones "undermine[s] respect for the rule of law and international legal protections and may set dangerous precedents," as well as inflicting terror upon Pakistani civilians?

8) How does the administration (or Romney) respond to the September statements of Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, who argued that America's use of drones in her country was (in its current form) "illegal" and fostered anti-American sentiment among the Pakistani population?

Multiple top-ranking administration officials have defended the morality and legality of America’s use of drones, including Harold Koh, Jeh C. Johnson, Eric Holder, and John Brennan. As such, Schieffer was correct to say that Obama's position on their use is known (i.e., he favors that use).

However, it is also true that the president himself has spoken only sparingly in public about his drone program, and his administration has not been forthcoming regarding the program's details. (As mentioned before, the ACLU's transparency efforts have been opposed, and the officials mentioned above have defended drones in largely theoretical terms).

It is highly unlikely the average citizen understands how this weapon has been used by the White House, which would mean it is equally unlikely the average citizen is familiar with the moral and legal questions raised by its use.

There is no reason why President Obama shouldn't have been asked anything about his use of drones during this, the campaign's only foreign policy debate. And there is no reason why Schieffer should have permitted Romney to offer platitudinous support for the administration's policies without asking him to further justify that support.

Schieffer's question, therefore, represented another example of why even our highest-level political debates are routinely of limited use.