06/11/2012 03:32 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2012

Sec. Clinton Should Make Sure the U.S. Lives Up to Her Promises

Last week, at a largely-overlooked Global Counterterrorism Forum in Istanbul, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made some big promises.

After praising participating states for their increased cooperation on counterterrorism, Clinton pledged that "the United States will work with all of you to combat terrorists within the framework of the rule of law."

She acknowledged that "some believe that when it comes to counterterrorism, the end always justifies the means; that torture, abuse, the suspension of civil liberties -- no measure is too extreme in the name of keeping our citizens safe." That view, she added, "is short-sighted and wrong."

Secretary Clinton went on to make a rare but important admission that "the United States has not always had a perfect record, and we can and must do a better job of addressing the mistaken belief that these tactics are ever permissible."

But when she described the U.S. government's position on its authority to use military force against terrorists, the "rule of law" lines started to blur.

Saying that President Obama has "made our standards very clear," she explained that the United States maintains "our right to use force against groups such as al Qaeda that have attacked us and still threaten us with imminent attack." In doing so, "we will comply with the applicable law, including the laws of war, and go to extraordinary lengths to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life."

In fact, the Obama administration has been anything but clear on this issue. The law allows the United States to use force against individuals directly participating in armed conflict-related hostilities against us or who pose an imminent threat to the United States. U.S. policy, however, has not been that carefully circumscribed.

U.S. officials have never demonstrated, for example, that many of the hundreds of individuals targeted and killed by bombs dropped from unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, in Pakistan or Yemen are actually part of armed groups that have attacked the United States and pose an imminent threat of another such attack. On the contrary, as the New York Times recently reported, U.S. officials say drones are targeting unknown individuals merely because they're military-age males found in a strike zone. And White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan in April claimed that the United States may lawfully kill any suspected member of al Qaeda, the Taliban or unnamed "associated forces" wherever they may be found. Whether those suspected "members" are actually directly participating in hostilities against the United States, or are even armed, was not mentioned.

Two weeks ago, Human Rights First Executive Director Elisa Massimino wrote to President Obama asking him to set the record straight on his targeted killing policy and clarify that the United States will only target individuals directly participating in hostilities against us or who pose an imminent threat to the United States, as international law requires. HRF has received no response.

Secretary Clinton's remarks last week are a welcome endorsement for the importance of all nations following the rule of law in counterterrorism operations. As she said,

"When nations violate human rights and undermine the rule of law, even in the pursuit of terrorists, it feeds radicalization, gives propaganda tools to the extremists, and ultimately undermines our efforts. The international community cannot turn our eyes away from the effects of these tactics because they are part of the problem."