America’s drone wars


President Obama’s public acknowledgment of the CIA’s secret drone campaign in Pakistan puts new pressure on the administration to defend the policy openly. That’s a welcome development. The president should now be equally forthcoming about the rationale for the targeted killings of American citizens.

In an interview conducted by Google and YouTube on Monday, Obama defended the use of drones as “judicious” and added that “obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA,” Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas. An administration official told CNN that the president’s remarks about the secret program were not a “slip-up.” Nevertheless, on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney refused to discuss the drone program, withholding comment on “supposed covert programs.”

Both the fact of the strikes and their general location have been open secrets for some time. But before Obama’s remarks, the administration assiduously refused to confirm U.S. involvement, largely in deference to a Pakistani government that has complained about what it sees as violations of its sovereignty. Yet the drone strikes were public knowledge in Pakistan, and the administration’s silence about them was as incredible there as it was in the United States.


Casual as they may have seemed, Obama’s remarks will make it difficult for the administration to avoid an open dialogue with Congress and the public about the utility — and morality — of the drone strikes. The operative word is “open.” Obviously the administration will not disclose the timing or precise locations of strikes. But the policy itself deserves more justification.

Now that Obama has been candid about the drone strategy, he owes the nation a further explanation about one of its most worrisome manifestations: the killing of American citizens without due process. Last year in Yemen a drone killed Anwar Awlaki, a native of New Mexico and a key figure in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. So far the administration has not laid out a convincing legal rationale for the assassination.

Reportedly Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. will publicly address the legality of targeting Americans in the next several weeks. He needs to be specific about that question and about the criteria used in the Awlaki case. (For example, was there a determination that Awlaki could not be captured alive?) He also should release to the public the memorandum from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel on which the administration relied. If Obama is willing to be more candid, so must the rest of his administration.