National Security


The last few weeks have provided a steady trickle of information about the Obama's administration use of drones to kill suspected terrorists in foreign countries. Today, we may learn a bit more. The administration has to file court papers justifying the secrecy surrounding the drone program. The American Civil Liberties Union has asked for documents that the government wants to keep classified.

Thanks to leaks, books and other reports, we do know that President Obama is deeply, personally involved in the decisions about where and when drones attack.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports that for better or worse, this may be Mr. Obama's biggest legacy in the fight against terrorism.


One privilege or burden of the Oval Office is that each inhabitant gets to decide how dirty to get his hands in wartime. Gary Solis of Georgetown is an expert in the law of war.

GARY SOLIS: Obviously, President Truman was the one who made the ultimate decision to use the atomic bomb. Ultimately, it was President Kennedy who made the decision not to use an atomic bomb in the Cuban Missile Crisis - or a nuclear weapon. So I think every head of government will make the decision as to who will or will not exercise targeting authority.

SHAPIRO: Although the CIA program is still classified, many published accounts say that Obama has decided to take personal responsibility for making decisions about who drones will target and kill. The president leaves lots of other targeting decisions to people far below him in the chain of command. He doesn't decide which artillery battery will target which village in Afghanistan, for example.

But drones are different. The machines target individuals, and they can fly into countries where they may not be welcome. So, Professor Solis says, they pose thorny new legal and moral questions.

SOLIS: Where is the battlefield? Can we fly these individual aircraft into Pakistan, into Yemen? Where can we take these planes and kill people?

SHAPIRO: The rules for drone wars are still being written. The Bush White House spent eight years writing and revising the rules for a new kind of war against al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. They created novel detention and interrogation policies. President Obama pretty much washed his hands of those policies. But on drones, Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith says, this president took the baton and ran with it.

JACK GOLDSMITH: Because the capacity and the technology of the drones improved, and the political and legal costs of detention became very high.

SHAPIRO: Goldsmith was a Bush justice department official and he wrote the book, "Power And Constraint: The Accountable Presidency After 9/11." He says Democrats would've attacked President Bush for these decisions, and with a few exceptions, they're giving President Obama a pass. That doesn't surprise Goldsmith.

GOLDSMITH: There's a symmetry there, because President Obama gets a pass when he does things kind of out of character against the expectations that we had when he came to office. President Bush got a pass when he wanted to do things like try terrorists in civilian courts, and when he released prisoners from Gitmo and when he tried to do softer things.

SHAPIRO: Yet Mr. Obama is not getting a total pass on drone strikes. Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU is part of a lawsuit challenging the secrecy surrounding this program.

JAMEEL JAFFER: The president has created a bureaucratized killing program that will be available to every future president, and against every future enemy or purported enemy.

SHAPIRO: That might not be a widely held view in the U.S., but overseas there is a growing consensus that Obama's drone policies are controversial at best. The man who took office promising to restore America's standing abroad has seen that standing wane recently, thanks in part to the use of drones. American University law professor, Ken Anderson, says he thinks this is an extension of a longstanding trend.

KEN ANDERSON: The trend of the U.S. military and U.S. uses of force since at least 1990 and before, have been you've got to find more discriminating ways of projecting force. It can't just be bigger and bigger kinetic explosions, you've got to find more discriminating ways to do it.

SHAPIRO: The future of drones could be insect-sized aircraft with even more power in the hands of a wide array of countries in the future. So as the technology gets smaller, the legal and moral questions may only get bigger. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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