The use of unmanned aircraft to carry out targeted killings is attractive because few U.S. lives are at risk, but increased use of unmanned aircraft could lead U.S. decisionmakers down a slippery slope.
And because President Obama has used drone attacks to focus on dismantling al-Qaida and other terrorists organizations, the United States is open to accusations of hypocrisy from its detractors when it questions the human rights commitment of other countries, former Vice President Walter Mondale said during a recent discussion about drones and the war on terror and terrorist organizations in the administrations of Obama and predecessor George W. Bush.
Obama has said he would like Congress to help him establish a legal framework for targeted killing to "make sure that not only I am reined in but any president is reined in," The Washington Post reported recently. So far, however, a legislative initiative hasn't been forthcoming.
The legal foundation of the drone program is a congressional resolution passed a week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States that authorized the use of military force.
Mondale, a former U.S. senator representing Minnesota, also was a member of the Church Committee that, among other things, recommended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. He said he worries "very much" about military tribunals and random killings by the United States because "they're used by our adversaries every day to call us hypocrites."
To constantly hear those accusations, whether the United States is hypocritical or not, "weakens us nationally," Mondale said during the forum at the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.
The discussion of human rights when Mondale served as Jimmy Carter's vice president "raised America's presence" because it positioned American values as an element of "soft" powers.
"We need to reassert America's moral authority," Mondale said.
Scott Shane, a New York Times reporter who covers national security, agreed, saying drone use "calls into question our moral authority."
Shane said the metamorphosis of the global war on terror during the Bush administration to the war against al-Qaida during Obama's presidency allowed for greater use of drone airstrikes.
"It's an attractive option" for Obama, Shane said during the discussion, adding it was "embraced without public debate."
He noted the sophisticated equipment and the safety of its operators allow drone use to expand through "mission creep" to include adversaries of America's friends and allies. Shane also said increasingly the people killed in drone strikes aren't high-value targets but lower-level militants who don't pose a threat to the U.S. homeland.
In the mid-1970s the Church Committee -- officially the U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities and led by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho -- investigated intelligence gathering for illegality by the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency following the break-in of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate in Washington.
FISA recognized the need to do things in secret but also stressed the need to be held accountable before Congress and the courts, said Mondale, a senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.
"It was a pretty good answer for a difficult field," he commented.
But technology advances are leaving FISA in the dust to the point it could almost be "irrelevant," Mondale said.
"I think the time has come to rethink this," he said, "to put a new [regimen] in place and make [agencies] accountable again."
Mondale and Shane noted six cases have been brought against people suspected of leaking government secrets so far on Obama's watch.
Shane observed much information can be gleaned through emails or Internet chat logs rather than someone stepping forward.
Asked whether leaking information was a crime, Mondale noted that, with few exceptions, no.
"We never passed a national secrets act," Mondale said, "because we would rather risk openness rather than risk police control."
When push comes to shove, though, Mondale said, "America ends up on the right side."
In Washington, meanwhile, a Senate subcommittee had a public debate last week about the legality and unintended consequences of America's targeted killings overseas, The Washington Post reported.
Among those testifying before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee was a Yemeni activist who argued U.S. drone strikes in Yemen embolden the country's al-Qaida followers while embittering Yemenis against the United States and diminishing the legitimacy the country's government.
"They fear that their home or a neighbor's home could be bombed at any time by a U.S. drone," Farea al-Muslimi said of a suspected drone strike recently in his village. "What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America."
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who presided over the hearing, said it was important to review whether current laws sanction drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where the United States isn't officially engaged in war but relying on the remotely piloted aircraft to kill suspected militants.
"The use of drones has, in stark terms, made targeted killing more efficient and less costly -- in terms of American blood and treasure," Durbin said. "There are, however, long-term consequences, especially when these airstrikes kill innocent civilians."