A Year On, What's Changed (And What Hasn't) On Drone Oversight

A year ago, President Obama defended using drones to target terrorism suspects overseas and offered a rationale for reining in the program. Where do things stand on efforts to impose constraints?

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The ability to monitor remotely is one hallmark of the post 9/11 world. Another is the ability to kill remotely. It's what the drone has made possible. But now the practice known as targeted killing may become harder to veil in secrecy. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: One year ago in that speech at the National Defense University, President Obama defended his use of drones as legal and effective. But he also acknowledged the practice raises moral questions.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For the same progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power or risk of using it.

JOHNSON: The president promised to impose more constraints. Steps like increasing scrutiny of U.S. strikes overseas and sharing more information about them with the public.

OBAMA: And going forward I've asked my administration to review proposals to extend oversight of lethal actions outside of war zones that go beyond our reporting to Congress.

JOHNSON: But little has happened in the past year on the oversight front. Lawmakers tried to force the administration to share how many enemy combatants and civilians are killed by American drones. All those efforts for voted down or went nowhere under pressure from the intelligence community. Yale Law professor, Harold Koh, a former legal advisor to the Obama State Department, says U.S. drone policy follows the law.

In Senate foreign relations testimony this week, though, Koh encouraged Congress to weigh in to build public confidence.

HAROLD KOH: Stronger public reporting requirements, particularly about civilian casualties and finally exploration of some kind of post, ex post, external review mechanism to examine the legality of past drone strikes.

JOHNSON: In a written statement, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden says the White House is exploring ways to share information with the American people. That could include releasing some legal justification for drones and data about civilians caught in the line of fire. For now, the U.S. mostly remains silent about claims it's mistakenly killing innocent people in places like Yemen, fostering mistrust there and around the world.

The White House says it only uses lethal force like drones against people who can't easily be captured by the U.S. or foreign partners and people who pose a continuing an imminent threat to the country. But the definition of imminent can be a little cloudy, as Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker pointed out.

SENATOR BOB CORKER: It seems to me that the description of imminent threat one that, over time, needs to be teased out.

JOHNSON: Law Professor Koh cited examples from recent history.

KOH: We know what an imminent threat is, Senator, you know. A guy gets on a plane, bomb in his underwear or in his sneakers and the next thing to do is to launch the attack. That's an imminent threat.

JOHNSON: Michael Mukasey who serve as attorney general under President George W. Bush says the U.S. can't predict exactly when terrorists are planning to act so the government needs to be flexible.

MICHAEL MUKASEY: Obviously, we're not privy to the plans of terrorists. They don't tell us precisely when they're going to act. They don't tell us necessarily even what precisely they're planning.

JOHNSON: But once the U.S. identifies them as terrorist organizations, Mukasey says it makes sense to consider them and their members imminent threats, unless there's good evidence to the contrary. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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