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Vetting the Kill List Vetting the Kill List

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Vetting the Kill List

Civil libertarians want a judge to oversee the administration’s targeted-killing program. It sounds appealing, but it could do more harm than good.


Who watches the watchers? A drone.(Courtesy photo U. S. Army)

To many following President Obama’s targeted-killing program, the idea of some formal oversight over the use of drones, some legal authority checking the administration’s conduct, seems prudent, even desirable. Americans are fundamentally suspicious people. Power unrestrained makes us edgy. It’s why we vote for divided government and gridlock, even though we like to complain about it. It’s why we don’t let police officers search our homes without a warrant.

To that mix, add some old-fashioned hysteria, courtesy of senators such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz—who, in a matter of days last month, seemed to have convinced half the nation that Skynet was real, that malevolent drones were about to start cutting down U.S. citizens in line at Panera Bread—and it’s easy to see why some sort of outside monitor, a “drone court” if you will, might make sense.


The administration has inadvertently helped that argument by its stubborn refusal to reveal even the smallest, most benign details of the counterterrorism program. The stonewalling has fueled speculation that the process by which authorities select and kill targets is suspect, that the whole endeavor has an ad hoc quality about it. And even as administration officials have refuted this suspicion—reporters such as Newsweek’s Daniel Klaidman have pulled back the curtain on careful White House deliberations—a gnawing sense of unease lingers.

Civil libertarians and even hawks such as former Rep. Jane Harman of California, who served on the House Intelligence Committee, have suggested creating a court modeled on the one that signs off on federal wiretaps of suspected foreign agents. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington operates in secret and requires the government to make a case before approving a tap. Harman and other proponents say such a body could review names on the “kill list” and weigh in on whether they merit inclusion based on the White House’s criteria for targeting potential threats. Robert Gates, the former Defense secretary, also favors such an approach.

But even among supporters, no consensus exists on what questions a drone court would actually review or even whether its scrutiny would come before or after a strike. The most problematic scenario involves any sort of preoperational clearance. Possible windows for action open and shut in a matter of hours. The kill lists are constantly being revised and updated. Even many of those who argue for some sort of oversight mechanism, such as University of Texas law professor Robert Chesney, don’t believe a judge should be involved when it comes to “pulling the trigger.”


Still, Chesney says such a court could still vet the names on the list in advance to ensure the administration is following its own guidelines for a strike: the target is connected to al-Qaida; he poses some threat of “imminent” harm; and the government is operating within its legal authority. “Whether and when to fire is a totally separate question,” Chesney says. (He notes that there’s a range of disagreement over how the administration classifies an “imminent” threat and whether a judge would be qualified to make that determination.)

But even that small degree of oversight, warns Gregory McNeal, a counterterrorism expert at Pepperdine University, risks throwing sand in the gears by extending the timeline of an op. And to McNeal, this point leads directly to the larger issue of accountability—or, to use the Washington synonym, blame. Judges, he says, simply aren’t ever going to be equipped to identify and navigate the variables involved in a drone strike.

Jeh Johnson, formerly the Obama administration’s top lawyer at the Pentagon, expressed his discomfort with court-based oversight in a speech last month at Fordham University. Questions of feasibility and imminence, he said, “are up-to-the-minute, real-time assessments.” More important, Johnson emphasized, “we want military and national security officials to continually assess and reassess these two questions up until the last minute of the operation.”

Given that reality, shifting the responsibility of a sign-off to a set of federal judges, who are unelected and serve for life, would allow the White House to escape the consequences of its actions, or more crucially, perhaps its failure to act if a target slips out of harm’s way and then masterminds an attack. Military decisions are, at heart, political ones, McNeal says, and they are rightly made by the branch of government whose top official, the president, faces voters. (A case in point: Republicans suffered at the ballot box in 2006 and 2008 as a result of the public’s displeasure with the Iraq war.) “If you’re a politician,” McNeal says of a drone court, “this is great. Because you aren’t on the hook for anything.”


By and large, federal judges don’t want to be in this position. They worry about damaging the integrity of the bench. Retired Judge James Robertson, who served on the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington, argued in The Washington Post that the Constitution forbids the judiciary from issuing advisory opinions. “Federal courts rule on specific disputes between adversary parties,” he wrote. “They do not make or approve policy; that job is reserved to Congress and the executive.” The FISA court is a different animal, because approving surveillance is related to Fourth Amendment protections on search warrants.

Still, Americans don’t have to grant the White House complete latitude to operate its targeted-killing program. Another idea that has marshaled some support is an inspector general empowered to review operations after the fact. If administration officials know that someone else ultimately will be auditing their decisions, Chesney says, that may be enough of a check on their conduct. Or as Ronald Reagan once put it: “Trust, but verify.”

Kristin Roberts contributed contributed to this article.

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