President Barack Obama's use of drones to kill people, including Americans, in other countries is at a minimum a failure of his often-repeated but seldom-honored commitment to government transparency. We also know that had President George W. Bush used drones to the extent Obama has done, the howling would have been deafening.
But now that the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to see how the administration can continue making subjective and largely unaccountable decisions about whom to kill.
Polls show Americans overwhelmingly support precision strikes by unmanned drones because they take out terrorists without endangering Americans' lives. We agree that drones have a place in our military strategy. But neither the president nor the CIA should be able to kill anyone, anywhere, without some level of accountability.
Then there's the do-unto-others problem. At present, the United States, United Kingdom and Israel are the only nations known to use armed drones. If it's OK for us and our allies to use them against suspected enemies in, say, Pakistan, what if Pakistan identifies an enemy in Washington and dispatches a drone to whack him? Is that all right, too?
John Brennan, the president's nominee to lead the CIA, defended the president's policy, insisting no legislation is needed to govern drones. He is wrong. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, should insist on establishing some rules of engagement.
This is an emerging field of technological warfare, and the Obama administration is taking a Wild West approach to drone use when a careful, ethical examination is needed.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, told a reporter, "What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world."
Obama has authorized five times as many drone attacks as Bush. The United Nations is looking at the increase and at reports of "disproportionate civilian casualties." The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates drones have killed between 474 and 884 civilians since 2004, including 176 children.
NBC News obtained a Department of Justice white paper outlining the U.S. criteria for a lethal drone attack against an American citizen. The person can be killed if he poses an imminent threat, although "imminent" is not defined; if capture is considered infeasible; and if the strike is conducted "according to the laws of war governing use of force." This can occur on foreign soil if there is evidence that the nation is unwilling to cooperate. In other words, anything goes.
But the paper is disturbingly silent on how the United States should react if another country launches a drone attack here, which we fear is only a matter of time.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by Osama bin Laden, Presidents Bush and Obama have taken extraordinary steps to prevent further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. In trade, Americans so far have been willing to compromise their values and privacy protections. But drones take us into new territory, and we think Obama should work with Congress on a moral and internationally defensible policy for their use.