When American drones kill American citizens

A ruling that the Obama Administration doesn't have to explain the rationale behind killing Americans with drone strikes raises a lot of ethical questions.

A lot of my friends in the security industry are outraged by a federal judge's ruling that the US Justice Department need not explain the Obama Administration's rationale behind killing Americans with drone strikes. I share the sentiment that this is a dangerous state of affairs -- that no good can come from letting the government take out Americans without explanation.

But like any matter of national security, the issues aren't as cut and dry as we'd like them to be. Nor are we as guiltless as we'd like to believe.

According to The New York Times, the Manhattan judge refused to require the Justice Department to disclose a memorandum providing the legal justification for the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who died in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. From the NYT article:

The ruling, by Judge Colleen McMahon, was marked by skepticism about the antiterrorist program that targeted him, and frustration with her own role in keeping the legal rationale for it secret.

“I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret,” she wrote. “The Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me,” Judge McMahon wrote, adding that she was operating in a legal environment that amounted to “a veritable Catch-22.”

A lawsuit for the memorandum and related materials was filed under the Freedom of Information Act by The New York Times and two of its reporters, Charlie Savage and Scott Shane. Wednesday’s decision also rejected a broader request under the act from the American Civil Liberties Union.

One could argue that the US has secretly killed citizens deemed a threat since the beginning of the republic. We've even romanticized it in TV shows and movies about government agents hunting down home-grown bad guys to stop them from doing terrible things -- all in secret. The American people want the government to keep them safe, even if that means doing unpleasant deeds out of public view. This has been especially true since 9-11.

When faced with the fear of a terrorist attack, we give the government a few inches to do unsavory things, like tapping our phone lines and locking suspected home-grown terrorists away without giving them the rights of due process, legal representation and a quick and speedy trial outlined in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The problem is that when you give the government an inch, it takes a mile. Killing Americans with drone aircraft is a perfect example of that.

As I say every time the government overreaches like this, we have only ourselves to blame.

Whenever we face a grave national security threat, we base our approval of Draconian measures as necessities of war. Some of us are even naive enough to believe that the extra wartime powers we give our presidents are temporary; that they will cease upon victory.

But the more realistic among us know that once you let this beast loose, it quickly grows too big and fast to get back in the cage.

We don't do nearly enough to hold government accountable for its actions.

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