President Barack Obama’s administration raced to develop specific guidelines for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned U.S drones in the days leading up to the presidential election, but are taking their time in doing so following the president’s route of GOP challenger Mitt Romney on Nov. 6.
The New York Times reported Sunday that the administration had accelerated its work as it faced the prospect that Obama might not win a second term. The idea was to make sure his successor inherited a clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials cited by the newspaper.
The matter has lost its immediate urgency after Obama’s electoral college beating of Romney on Nov. 6, but the more than 300 drone strikes and the estimated 2,500 deaths for which they are alleged to be responsible mandates that the administration still come up with some sort of formal guidelines to resolve internal uncertainty as to when the lethal actions are justified.
Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.
Publicly the administration presents a united front on the use of drones, but behind the scenes there is longstanding tension. The Defense Department and the CIA continue to press for greater latitude to carry out strikes, while officials from the Justice and State Departments and the president’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, have argued for restraint, officials involved in the discussions say.
More broadly, the administration’s legal reasoning has not persuaded many other countries that the strikes are acceptable under international law. For years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States routinely condemned targeted killings of suspected terrorists by Israel, and most countries still object to such measures.
But since the first targeted killing by the United States in 2002, two administrations have taken the position that the United States is at war with Al Qaeda and its allies and can legally defend itself by striking its enemies wherever they are found.
Partly because United Nations officials are aware that the United States is setting a legal and ethical precedent for other countries developing armed drones, the U.N. plans to open a unit in Geneva early next year to investigate American drone strikes.
The attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer after news reports on the drone program that first began under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama revealed some details of the president’s role in the shifting procedures for compiling “kill lists” and approving strikes.
Though national security officials insist that the process is meticulous and lawful, the president and top aides believe it should be institutionalized, a course of action that seemed particularly urgent when it appeared that Romney might win the presidency.
“There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, according to the Times.
With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Obama did not want to leave an “amorphous” program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, the official said.
Obama himself, in little-noticed remarks, has acknowledged that the legal governance of drone strikes is still a work in progress.
“One of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need Congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in, but any president’s reined in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making,” the president told Jon Stewart in an appearance on “The Daily Show” on Oct. 18.
In an interview with Mark Bowden for a new book on the killing of Osama bin Laden, Obama said that “creating a legal structure, processes, with oversight checks on how we use unmanned weapons, is going to be a challenge for me and my successors for some time to come.”
Despite public remarks by Obama and his aides on the legal basis for targeted killing, the program remains officially classified.
Experts say the strikes are deeply unpopular both in Pakistan and Yemen, in part because of allegations of large numbers of civilian casualties, which American officials say are exaggerated.