Editorial: Unchecked power


Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 11, 2013 at 4:31 p.m.

With Gainesville becoming a hotbed for companies that develop drones, there's local interest in the growing use of the unmanned aircraft.

Drones have the potential to improve civilian efforts such as the management of conservation lands that are difficult to navigate by ground. But the use of drones by law enforcement and the military raises concerns about the violation of civil liberties of U.S. citizens at home and abroad.

The Obama administration's legal justification for using drones to kill citizens should make everyone feel uncomfortable. Last week, a leaked Justice Department white paper revealed that the government is now asserting it has the constitutional power to kill a U.S. citizen in another country if the person is believed to be a ranking al-Qaida member who poses an imminent threat to kill Americans.

The legal opinion stretches the definition of imminent threat to the point of being meaningless, not requiring the U.S. to have clear evidence that a specific attack will take place in the immediate future. It raises profound concerns when applied beyond the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq as part of a "war on terror" seemingly without end.

Candidate Barack Obama rightly criticized the Bush administration for concocting dubious legal justifications for military operations outside the bounds of U.S. and international law. But Obama has failed to apply the same standard to his own presidency.

There are clear benefits to the military's use of drones. With the U.S. spending billions and suffering thousands of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's certainly appealing to instead narrowly focus our military operations on small groups that threaten to do us harm.

But using drones may make it too easy to wage war. The idea that someone sitting in Tampa could be using drones to kill on the other side of the world risks turning war into a video game, allowing those operations to be ordered without their consequences being fully examined.

The use of drones has the potential to cause similar damage to America's image abroad as the Iraq War or Guantanamo Bay. Much like our intelligence agents torturing captured terrorists, the U.S. risks setting a precedent that other countries may one day use against our people.

Troubling questions are raised when drone strikes can kill a 16-year-old U.S. citizen — as happened in 2011 — without any oversight outside of the administration in power. Secrecy is needed due to the very nature of drone strikes, but that doesn't mean there should be unchecked executive power to order them.

One possibility would be creating an entity similar to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, which Congress created so that surveillance had to be justified to a federal judge. No matter what mechanism is devised, it's clear that some oversight is needed.

As Gainesville companies get deeper into the business of developing drones, people working for them and others living here should have confidence that the technology is being used responsibly.

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