Killing them softly

There’s been quite a bit of chatter in the media this week about the use of drones in the surveillance of American cities, with conservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer lining up to say they should be banned.

But where is the conversation about the legality of their use outside the United States? What about the border areas of Pakistan and other places such as Yemen, Somalia and Libya? There was only a blip of public awareness after the targeted killing of al Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last September, but only because he was American-born. The attorney general, Eric Holder, took five months to justify Awlaki’s killing on foreign soil. He eventually said there was a three-point test under which the government must determine that an American citizen poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, that capture is not feasible, and that the killing would be consistent with laws of war.

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But where is the conversation about the legality of the use of drones in Pakistan, a country with which the United States is not at war but where more than 300 drone strikes have targeted the border areas?

Congress needs to get its head around this issue, which could figure at the NATO summit over the weekend in Chicago, to which Afghan and Pakistani leaders have been invited. In Pakistan, the drone strikes have become increasingly controversial, fueling anti-Americanism and giving oxygen to opposition parties. We are fast reaching the point where their use will become counterproductive for the administration, if we are not there already.

But until now, it has looked as though lawmakers would prefer to ignore the escalating use of unmanned aerial vehicles, as long as they are operating far from U.S. shores, averting the deployment of boots on the ground and saving money while operating around the clock from a distant command and control center.

I listened to a fascinating presentation earlier this week by Geneve Mantri, Amnesty International’s director of terrorism, counterterrorism and human rights in Washington. He said that “to all intents and purposes, the U.S. is running an assassination program.”

Now that it has apparently decided that being on a named list of al Qaeda suspects is no longer enough and that suspicious behavior could trigger strikes from the silence of the sky, who decides who is on the target list, and who signs off? Where’s the oversight?

These are excellent questions. Congress has been silent for too long.