According to a recent New York Times report, which relied on information that was likely leaked to enhance the presidentâ€™s national security credentials, the administration has established a regular inter-agency meeting at which administration officials debate who to kill. It is presented as rigorous and demanding, yet the presidentâ€™s chief political adviser, David Axelrod, reportedly attends (though he claims he does not). Supposedly members freely challenge targeting proposals, but there is no independent person to question administration priorities or review administration actions. The article presents the president as a wise, judicious, and principled arbiter, but even if so, he should be held accountable for his decisions.
The U.S. must minimize the deaths of noncombatants. Admittedly, this is especially difficult where there is no traditional battlefield upon which most of the fighting occurs. The irregular nature of terrorism means members of threatening organizations often live and operate in the midst of civilian communities. Mistakes are easy to make.
However, concern for noncombatants should be an obvious moral imperative. Terrorism is outrageous because it targets those who have done nothing wrong. What if counter-terrorism kills the innocent, even if inadvertently? The Times story notes the possibility of â€śexplicit intelligence posthumously provingâ€ť people to be innocent, but there is no medical procedure to posthumously unkill people — at least not yet.
The other reason to kill only real terrorists targeting Americans is prudential: Mistakes create terrorists. It doesnâ€™t take an investigative journalist to recognize that hostility toward the U.S. continues to rise in both Pakistan and Yemen along with the number of drone strikes. And that should surprise no one: Americans would react badly if another power, say China, was routinely lobbing missiles into American neighborhoods, killing people, even if it was doing so in the name of fighting terrorism. The enemies created are not limited to the nations targeted. Faisal Shahzad, a U.S. citizen, cited drone attacks as justification for attempting to set off a bomb in New York Cityâ€™s Times Square.
Unfortunately, the administration has yielded to temptation and expanded the kill list to include people like Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistan Taliban. The Times notes that the U.S. killed Mehsud in 2009 even though his group â€śmainly targeted the Pakistan government.â€ť The administration rationalized â€śthat he represented a threat, if not to the homeland, to American personnel in Pakistan.â€ť
U.S. officials also admit that they were played by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen: â€śThere were times when we were intentionally misled, presumably by Saleh, to get rid of people he wanted to get rid of,â€ť one unnamed official told The Washington Post. Yet the U.S. campaign in Yemen recently has been broadened to operatives who supposedly pose a threat not to Americans in America, but Americans in Yemen. Reported The Post: â€śA growing number of attacks have been aimed at lower-level figures who are suspected of having links to terrorism operatives but are seen mainly as leaders of factions focused on gaining territory in Yemenâ€™s internal struggle.â€ť
No provision of the U.S. Constitution or law â€” at least, that is publicly known â€” authorizes the president to kill as a favor for other governments. Moreover, treating others as enemies naturally turns them into enemies.