When I was a child at the end of World War II, I was told the good guys won. Reading David Cole’s remarks on drones [“Remote Control Killing,” March 4], I wonder. He writes, “We should not confuse [drones] with assassinations and torture.” Why not? The concept of the “rule of law” he invokes is meaningless as long as the authority to kill without due process is public policy; worse when that authority resides in one man. What profiteth a nation to win a war against fascism only to adopt its policies?
Kansas City, Mo.
What has happened to The Nation? I wait for some discussion of the fascist takeover of our country and the world. When it was Bush, you covered crimes. Now with Obama, it’s just a slap on the wrist. David Cole, your legal affairs correspondent, says of drones, “We cannot forswear their use.” Yes, we must. Thanks to Katha Pollitt in the same issue, who writes more about the immorality of drones and kill lists.
New York City
David Cole is right that there is something very wrong with the Obama administration’s “targeted killing” program. It is shrouded in unnecessary secrecy, but publicly available information makes clear that the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command have killed hundreds of people without knowing very much about who they are, what they’ve done or whether they present a direct threat to the United States.
The administration’s former ambassador to Pakistan, who helped implement the targeted killing program there, has complained that the CIA regards “any male between the ages of 20 and 40” as a lawful target. The British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks drone strikes, estimates that as many as 4,300 people have lost their lives to US drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Lindsey Graham, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the number of dead is even higher.
This is not only a human rights travesty; it is unwise and unlawful. Few things are more certain to swell the ranks of terrorist organizations than the perception that the United States is indifferent to the loss of innocent life. And international law is unambiguous: outside actual battlefields, lethal force may be used only against threats that are truly imminent, and then only as a last resort. The Justice Department white paper recently leaked to the press confirms that the administration’s targeted killing program does not observe these limits.
For moral, strategic and legal reasons, the program should be made more discriminating and more transparent. As Cole says, it should also be subject to judicial review—which should take place in federal courts, not in a new security tribunal set up specifically to issue death warrants. The federal courts are accustomed to evaluating the government’s use of lethal force in a domestic law enforcement context. They have also become accustomed to evaluating the lawfulness of national security detentions. They could certainly review the lawfulness of targeted killings.
Indeed, as the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights are arguing in a case pending before a district judge in Washington, the Constitution requires the courts to do so. There is no need for a new “kill court,” and the creation of such a court would be more likely to normalize the targeted killing program than to narrow it.