Back to News & Commentary

Obama’s Playbook: Still Killing Outside the Lines

Matthew Harwood,
Former Managing Editor,
Share This Page
January 25, 2013

To hear the Obama administration tell it, through anonymous leaks to the press of course, the United States’ “targeted killing” program will soon be bound by clear and “more stringent” rules before a drone strike gets the green light. This counterterrorism “playbook,” so says the administration, will institutionalize the process for the remote-controlled killing program and keep it within the rule of law.

But that isn’t true for three reasons, Chris Anders, a senior legislative counsel at the ACLU, explained to PBS’s NewsHour on Wednesday night. First, secret rules are inconsistent with the rule of law, which is predicated on everyone knowing the rules. Second, the Obama administration’s playbook rules will not apply to CIA drone strikes in Pakistan for at least a year if not more, according to the Post. Third, and most importantly, the rules undergirding the program, secret or not, violate the Constitution and international law.

Anders noted the Kafkaesque nature of the secrecy during the program. “To say we follow the rule of law, but we don’t even know what the rules are, and then the rules don’t apply to the biggest player is a little bit of a joke.”

Drone strikes occur frequently inside Pakistan, the only country in which the CIA is exempt from the secret rules. And contrary to the claims of CIA Director nominee John Brennan, arguably the most important cog in the remote-controlled killing machine, drone strikes do kill civilian bystanders, including children. In total, about 3,000 people, including 176 children, have been killed by over 300 drone strikes in Pakistan, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Although we’re not at war with Pakistan, Pakistanis feel under attack from the United States. “Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning,” a recent report, Living Under Drones, explained. “Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.” The impact as well as the legality of these kinds of drone attacks, and the larger “targeted killing” toolkit, is now the focus of a U.N. investigation.

Nevertheless, President Obama frequently makes reference to the importance of the rule of law in guiding our national security decisions.

“We will defend our people, and uphold our values through strength of arms, and the rule of law,” he said during his inaugural speech on Monday. “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully. Not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

Obama’s remote-controlled killing program, however, continues to instill suspicion and fear rather than lift it. It’s a dangerous legacy for a program that has become an illegal hallmark of his administration.

Check out the interview below:

Video courtesy of PBS NewsHour ©2013 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. Please note that by playing this clip You Tube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see You Tube’s privacy statement on their website and Google’s privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU’s privacy statement, click here.

Learn more about targeted killings: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page