The Current

U.S. drone warfare needs more oversight and controls, says lawyer

The Obama White House created guidelines to control targeted killings and drone strikes but they are not enforceable and not open to judicial review. The Current looks at how Obama's anti-terror track record feeds into Trump's anti-terror Inheritance.
Since taking office, U.S. President Obama has expanded the U.S. drone program and has defended it, even in the face of growing criticism. (The Associated Press)

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Since October, U.S. drones strikes have taken aim at targets in Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. President Barack​ Obama has exclusive executive powers over the program — that means not even Congress or the U.S. courts have any say over the intended targets of U.S. drones, nor can they review strikes after the fact.

To the U.S. government, drones are a precise and crucial tool on the war on terror.

To critics, drones are secretive, extra-judicial killings that too often lead to the deaths of civilians whose names rarely make headlines.

Jameel Jaffer has led a years-long effort to shine more light into the shadowy world of the White House-led drone program.

The former deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union has compiled his findings into The Drone Memos: Targeted Killing, Secrecy and the Law and says the book is possible because the veil of secrecy on the drone program was partially lifted.

"There's still a lot that isn't known," Jaffer tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

He says the memos are a result of litigation conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Times and a small number of journalists over the last five years. 
Former ACLU legal director Jameel Jaffer says Obama's decision to put counter terrorism measures under executive order means Trump has the power to do the same without oversight. (Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images for the Open Society Foundation)

"There's a lot that still remains secret including information relating to civilian casualties."

​U.S. President Obama defends the combat drone program as "a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists" and says that "drone strikes have actually not caused a huge number of civilian casualties."

But Jaffer says the U.S. drone program is not so targeted.

"They are not people who present an imminent threat to the country, or even a continuing and imminent threat which is a phrase that the administration has invented," Jaffer explains.

"Instead they are low-level foot soldiers or in hundreds of cases they are bystander's civilian bystanders."

When President Obama came into office, Jaffer says, Americans were wary of large scale commitment of ground forces so drones were an appealing alternative to keep troops off the ground.

With reference to the drone program, the U.S. Congress was obstructionist in many ways according to Jaffer and believes Congress was happy to let "Obama claim these powers and to use them aggressively."

"Part of the reason President Obama didn't go back to Congress and ask for a new authorization for military force ... was not because he thought Congress would stand in the way but because Congress would give him too much power, and that power will then be available to the next president," says Jaffer.

"There is a kind of irony in it because you know obviously, on this other front on drone warfare, President Obama has 
done exactly that, he's claimed all of this power that Donald Trump will now be able to rely on."

"President Trump is inheriting this power that's really not constrained at all by the other branches."

Listen to the full conversation.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman.