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Editorial: Drone program needs some clarity

WASHINGTON DC - MARCH 19:  U.S. Senator RPaul (R-KY) addresses breakfast meeting 2013 Annual Legislative Summit U.S. Hispanic Chamber

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 19: U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) addresses a breakfast meeting of the 2013 Annual Legislative Summit of U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC) March 19, 2013 at Capitol Hilton Hotel in Washington, DC. Paul spoke on immigration and he announced his endorsement for a pathway for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States to become citizens. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 164200644

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Updated: April 25, 2013 6:55AM

Every few days we are reminded yet again that the Obama administration’s campaign of targeted killings using unmanned drones cries out for congressional oversight and accountability.

But this Democratic president continues to get a pass, largely because so many would-be critics tend to be Democrats, too. If this were a Bush-Cheney program, they’d be howling.

On Thursday in Chicago, a former Obama military adviser warned that constant drone strikes, typically in remote regions of such countries as Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, could be doing more long-term harm than good, driving local populations to extremism.

“We’re seeing that blowback,” said Gen. James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressing the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”

Earlier in the week, it was reported that the Obama administration is considering shifting more drone operations from the CIA to the Department of Defense, a move that by no means assures the program would be less secretive.

Most famously, Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, earlier this month railed in a 13-hour filibuster against the secretive nature of the White House’s drone policy.

Drones are not going away. They are the future of warfare. They have been effective in killing dangerous terrorists, including top leaders of al-Qaida. And they can dramatically reduce the need to put American soldiers in harm’s way.

But if killer drones are to be used in a manner that is not fundamentally anti-American — killing terror suspects far from recognized battlefields without charge or trial, simply on a president’s say-so — a defensible legal framework and congressional oversight are essential.

One possible partial solution, favored by civil libertarians, would be a “drone court” where the administration would have to prove its case for targeting an individual before carrying out a strike. It would be similar to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews spy agencies’ warrantless wiretaps.

Obama himself has called for greater transparency in the drone program, saying in his State of the Union address in January that he would “engage with Congress” toward that end. A few months earlier, on “The Daily Show” in October, he said, “One of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place, and we need congressional help in order to do that, to make sure that not only am I reined in, but any president’s reined in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making.”

But the president has not matched words with actions. On the contrary, when Sen. Paul questioned whether Obama believed he had legal authority, as commander in chief, to order a drone strike on an American citizen on U.S. soil, the president’s attorney general, Eric Holder, essentially said, yes, but only if the target were an “enemy combatant.”

As if that disingenuous response didn’t beg the next question: Who decides who is an enemy combatant?

As a step forward, it’s way past time that the administration share with Congress the Office of Legal Counsel memos used to justify the targeted killings of Americans with drones. A handful of senators have been allowed to view just some of the memos — and only after the Senate Intelligence Committee threatened to spike the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan.

Obama likely would claim executive privilege in not releasing the memos should Congress subpoena them. But it need not come to that. The president can and should freely release them now.

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