The Post’s View

More oversight and disclosure on drones

AFTER SEN. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held the Senate hostage Wednesday in order to warn that American citizens could be targeted by drone strikes on U.S. soil, he was rightly taken to task for gross and irresponsible mischaracterizations of the Obama administration’s policy. We’ve got another complaint: Mr. Paul and his followers are distracting attention from the real issues raised by the administration’s secret warfare.

Mr. Paul’s filibuster was triggered by the response of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to the question of whether the president “has the authority to order lethal force, such as a drone strike, against a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, and without a trial.” Mr. Holder’s unremarkable answer was that the administration had no intention of ever using such force but that “in an extraordinary circumstance,” such as the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it would be “necessary and appropriate” for the president to order military action inside the United States.

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From that answer, Mr. Paul and allies such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) somehow concocted the absurd notion that Americans “sitting quietly in cafes” could be blasted by Hellfire missiles. No, they couldn’t be, as Mr. Holder made clear in a letter to Mr. Paul on Thursday. But the reality is that Americans who become combatants for forces with which the United States is at war, such as al-Qaeda, are legitimate targets. If one such enemy combatant attempted to crash an airliner into the Capitol, the president would be at fault if he did not deploy the Air Force in defense.

But enough about Mr. Paul: The fact that his paranoid fantasies gained some traction is testimony to the administration’s real failures in managing its counterterrorism campaigns. Mr. Obama has chosen to carry out hundreds of drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, including one against a U.S. citizen, without any public accounting. Justice Department memos authorizing the attacks have not been disclosed; only this week were senators on the intelligence committee allowed to read them. The White House has devised a process for adding names to a target list for drone strikes but has never revealed even its outlines. Instead, it insists on its righteousness and invites Americans to trust that its decisions are justified.

That is not how a democracy should operate. As we have previously argued, there is no cause for most of the secrecy in which the drone operations are shrouded. The political backlash against them, both at home and abroad, could be diminished if the administration were to conduct strikes with regular military forces, rather than the CIA, and report on them as it does all other military operations. More important, the administration could greatly increase the legitimacy and sustainability of the strikes by openly laying out the criteria under which they can be carried out and by seeking congressional authorization. That framework could include special measures for the targeting of U.S. citizens, such as review by a secret court when practicable. It could also give Mr. Obama the explicit authority to expand the use of drones to countries where al-Qaeda is establishing itself, such as Mali and Syria.

Mr. Holder acknowledged to a Senate committee before Mr. Paul spoke that “there is a greater need for transparency” about the drone war and that he expects Mr. Obama to speak about it. A presidential speech would certainly be welcome. But only disclosure and congressional authorization will solve this problem.

 
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