Since taking over the war on terrorism, President Barack Obama has not only continued using drones, he has made them an even more important part of the arsenal.
The remote-controlled weapons have been successful in killing top al-Qaida leaders, and the target list has expanded to lower-level militants, including some who weren't directly threatening U.S. forces. The geography of the strikes has grown beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, to Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Last year, a CIA drone assassinated a radical cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a U.S. citizen but deemed to be an enemy combatant.
All this time, the Obama administration has not come up with specific rules for deploying the drones. It accelerated the drafting of formal standards just before the Nov. 6 election in case Obama lost, reports The New York Times.
The review is long overdue. Just because Obama won should not slow its momentum. The rules are no less important for his second term than they would have been for Mitt Romney's first term. Since Obama took office, nearly 300 attacks have killed an estimated 2,500 people, including some civilians. The CIA and the military have about 7,000 drones, up from only 50 a decade ago. It's nearly a $5 billion-a-year program. It is only through intrepid reporting, however, that Americans know that there is apparently a "kill list" of potential targets compiled by a secret panel, and that there was a legal memo drafted to justify al-Awlaki's killing.
In some ways, it's understandable why the drones seem like a good option in this unconventional war. U.S. forces can act more quickly. Americans aren't put in harm's way. If the intelligence is solid, fewer civilians are put at risk.
Yet the widespread use of drones comes at a cost to our moral, legal and strategic standing in the world. The president and his team have failed to clearly lay out the case to the American public for when these drone strikes are necessary and in the country's best interests.
A specific rule book is a necessary start, but only a start. If this is how we're going to fight the war on terrorism, there needs to be far more accountability and far less secrecy, including greater oversight by our elected representatives in Congress.