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Drone Fever Peaks As Brennan Speaks

A recent Huffington Post headline:

President Obama decided not to leave the White House without formalizing the drone warfare rule book and reducing attendant secrecy. That process revealed a robust conversation within the administration about the limits of drone warfare. Long before yesterday’s confirmation hearing, the New York Times reported that John O. Brennan had argued for restraint during that process. Brennan also wants to shift the drone mission back to the United States military and out of the CIA.

So we should not be surprised that the Justice Department white paper causing so much consternation this week — the one describing the mysterious White House memo that sets the standards for Obama’s drone war — says operations must be “conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.” That is an unambiguous statement holding the CIA to a comprehensible standard.

But ambiguity bedevils critics of drone warfare with the words “imminent threat,” which have an expanded meaning in the White House drone manual. Objectors express confusion and alarm. If we have no proof that enemy combatants are planning an attack right now, how can we kill them? And if one of those enemy combatants is an American citizen, don’t they have a right to due process?

The answer to these questions is an unsettling one, but it makes perfect sense when you look at an image of casualties on a Civil War battlefield. Or World War II. Or any war. The due process of war simply does not admit for open proceedings and scheduled dockets; known enemies are identified, targeted, and murdered as the war demands.

Furthermore, Americans who join the enemy to make war on the United States do not enjoy special protections above their foreign comrades. This is why the oath of enlistment charges every American warfighter with protecting and defending the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It is supposed to be dangerous to make war on one’s own country.

This is why the intense focus of certain civil libertarians on the death of Anwar Al-Awlaki strikes me as hollow. There are no unresolved legal questions in his killing: Awlaki made a bad choice, and no one made it for him. Nevertheless, opponents of the war have successfully propagated a notion that something is illegitimate about the death of a wartime traitor.

This argument raises a specter of tyrannical government — the kind of straw man we normally associate with the National Rifle Association. In their paranoid masthead picture above, Huffington Post shows the drone coming right at you, free to kill Americans for secret reasons. Fear the drone! 

But it doesn’t take a legal genius to see how preposterous this is. There are no armed insurrections taking place in the United States. Our military is not engaged with this enemy at home, but abroad. Perhaps in some dystopian future American civil war, drones will be used to kill American citizens. In the meantime, it is much more likely that unmanned aerial vehicles will be used to issue speeding tickets and track car chases for live television. Moreover, it doesn’t pay to worry overmuch about who pulls the trigger, or when, or why.

“It’s completely on faith,” said Naureen Shah, a lecturer at Columbia Law School and associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at the school’s Human Rights Institute.

“That might be something we’re willing to trust President Obama with,” she added, “but are we willing to trust the junior-level people who are actually running the show? Who are we trusting here?”

Obama’s White House procedure manual routes decisions through the president. Ultimately, however, it is up to a president’s juniors to exercise delegated authority and make decisions including life or death. This, too, is written in the Oath of Enlistment, requiring everyone in uniform to obey the orders of the President of the United States, who sits at the absolute top end of all chains of command. The only notable feature of the drone war as opposed to any previous conflict is the length of the chain:

“The kill chain is so short,” explains John Pike, one of the world’s leading experts on weapons and the founder of, a Washington-based think tank. When the order comes down through the command levels, after a circling drone has helped to identify the target properly, the attack can be launched immediately. “Calling in a commando team is gonna take time,” Pike said. “And I can’t have commando teams circling around in the sky on the off-chance I’m gonna need ’em.”

So if it frightens you that presidents could command such power, just remember that they always have before, and always will. It is fine to oppose drone war as a matter of pacifist principle, but quite another thing to oppose drone strikes in particular by invoking paranoid hyperbole. One needn’t be a Luddite to despise war.

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