United States must provide information on drone program

February 11, 2013

There is finally good news concerning the debate over drones. The Obama administration would probably point to what they see as military successes as proof of the effectiveness of drones… However, I think the deaths of civilians and the ominous reliance on machines outweighs those victories. But now the administration may be doing something to make this technology usable without violating the rights of American citizens and civilians abroad.

After the uproar that arose when President Obama informed Congress that he had the right to kill American citizens who are members of al-Qaeda — without any of the comforts of due process and presumably through the use of drones — his administration has finally recognized the need for more oversight of the drone program.

Several senators have been complaining — as they should — about the lack of information released to them about drones. The program is infamous for its secrecy, meaning that when the public finds out that our government has killed an American citizen or a group of Pakistani children, our outrage is mingled with surprise at being consistently kept in the dark.

This may be changing, at least partially. The public will still not be aware of most of the details of the drone program, but the Obama administration is considering setting up a court to oversee the use of drones, similar to the secret court used by the American government since 1978 to oversee foreign spies.

As of now, no one in Congress or the executive administration seems to agree on exactly how this court should work, but since gridlock is the new norm in Washington, D.C., we should value the fact that our politicians are at least discussing options to make the drone program more transparent.

Because the use of drones is so technically complicated and because the program has been kept secret for so long, there is doubt as to whether a judge would be able to adequately understand cases. Therefore, most of the advocates for a drone court want the focus to be on individual targets — especially American citizens — and whether the President has reason and, more importantly, the right to kill them.

Again, this court would not make additional information about drones available to the public. It might not prevent any deaths or violence from the drone strikes if, like the court that monitors spying, it approves nearly every request from the administration. There are probably better solutions to the public outcry over our increased military reliance on drone technology — releasing more information about the administration’s use of drones for defense and stopping the killing of American citizens would be a start, but the administration is clearly not prepared to do this.

A drone court would not be a panacea, but it would be comforting if even one non-administration official — perhaps someone who was trained and paid to determine whether an action is just — were allowed such insight into the program.

This article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 11 print edition. Jessica Littman is a staff columnist. Email her at jlittman@nyunews.com.

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