Action, Not Speeches, Needed to Formalize the Scope of War

Last Thursday President Obama spoke at the University of Chicago Law School about the Supreme Court and the challenges he is facing in the nomination process. Law students covered many issues in their questions, but the last question posed was about the president’s authority to conduct drone strikes away from active battlefields.

The student noted that the president has authorized strikes under “vague legal standards” and that civilians have been killed, asking how these killings are morally and legally justified. He also wondered what kind of message the president thinks these strikes send to the rest of the world about America’s values.

President Obama acknowledged that in the beginning of his presidency, his administration accelerated the use of drones faster than it developed legal guidelines for their use, and that yes, there have been civilian casualties as a result of drone strikes. However, he argued that a great deal of progress has been made, and that he has always called for “creating a process whereby public accountability is introduced so that…citizens…can look at the facts and see whether or not we’re abiding by what we say are these norms.”

In a speech at the National Defense University in 2013, the president said that we have to develop a structure that governs the U.S. use of drones, given their remote use and lethality. That same day, he signed the Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) on the administration’s use of drones. Though this document remains classified, the administration says it plans to release a redacted version of it. He should release the full PPG with as few redactions as possible, and as quickly as possible, in order to support his call for increased transparency.

Last Thursday Obama also noted that supervision of the drone program should be the responsibility of the military, and not the CIA. All drone strikes should be transferred from the CIA to the Department of Defense. This would facilitate releasing casualty assessments and acknowledging all strikes, instead of allowing them to remain shrouded in secrecy.

President Obama said that by the time he leaves office, he wants to establish a formalized structure governing how drone strikes are conducted, and an institutionalized process for annual reporting on drone strikes. These are important steps in the right direction. However, he should also formalize the boundaries of his war authorities more generally. The administration has gone to great lengths to clarify its views on the boundaries of war, but these policies and legal interpretations have been scattered throughout various speeches and other documents. These efforts to define the scope of war, including drone strikes, are all at risk if they aren’t formalized before his term ends. They should be synthesized into one single official executive document before the next president takes office.


Published on April 12, 2016


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