Because drones kill so well -- at what the government deems an acceptable level of precision (currently 60% hit the target w/o much collateral damage) and at a low cost (both economically and politically) -- they are driving US security policy into new, dangerous territory.
In a larger sense, drones are also changing the entire landscape of warfare and modern conflict, which is of interest to this writer/theorist. So, even though I'm not a lawyer, I'm going to give coverage of this policy shift a go.
What is this new killer drone policy? The Administration's Attorney General, Eric Holder, made a speech at the Northwestern School of Law on March 5, 2011 that lays out the US case for targeted killings (aka: The US Killer Drone Policy).
He entered the auditorium to a standing ovation and left to perfunctory applause. The planned Q and A session was cancelled.
Here are some of the interesting parts. Do your own analysis.
We are a nation at war. And, in this war, we face a nimble and determined enemy that cannot be underestimated... [We are in a war without end? If the Oklahoma City bombing occured today, would we view all domestic threats through the logic of perpetual warfare? ]
Our legal authority [to use lethal force against enemies of the state] is not limited to the battlefields in Afghanistan. Indeed, neither Congress nor our federal courts has limited the geographic scope of our ability to use force to the current conflict in Afghanistan. We are at war with a stateless enemy, prone to shifting operations from country to country... [unlimited geographical coverage]
Some have called such operations “assassinations.” They are not, and the use of that loaded term is misplaced. Assassinations are unlawful killings. Here, for the reasons I have given, the U.S. government’s use of lethal force in self defense against.. [someone] ...who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful — and therefore would not violate the Executive Order banning assassination or criminal statutes...
The evaluation of whether an individual presents an “imminent threat” incorporates considerations of the relevant window of opportunity to act, the possible harm that missing the window would cause to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks against the United States...
The conduct and management of national security operations are core functions of the Executive Branch, as courts have recognized throughout our history. Military and civilian officials must often make real-time decisions that balance the need to act, the existence of alternative options, the possibility of collateral damage, and other judgments – all of which depend on expertise and immediate access to information that only the Executive Branch may possess in real time. The Constitution’s guarantee of due process is ironclad, and it is essential – but, as a recent court decision makes clear, it does not require judicial approval before the President may use force [to kill an individual]... even if that individual happens to be a U.S. citizen. [essentially, there isn't a judicial process involved. If you or your group is on the kill list and the window of opportunity opens up, you are dead]
[A killing is lawful if...] First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles. [This isn't a judicial process, it's an administrative process and it can be automated.]
That is not to say that the Executive Branch has – or should ever have – the ability to target any such individuals without robust oversight. Which is why, in keeping with the law and our constitutional system of checks and balances, the Executive Branch regularly informs the appropriate members of Congress about our counterterrorism activities [essentially, there isn't any oversight, just after the fact notification]
The unfortunate reality is that our nation will likely continue to face terrorist threats that – at times – originate with our own citizens. When such individuals take up arms against this country.. there may be only one realistic and appropriate response. We must take steps to stop them [use drones to kill them when possible] – in full accordance with the Constitution [a hollow mention since they've already claimed, it doesn't place any restraint on their powers] In this hour of danger, we simply cannot afford to wait until deadly plans are carried out – and we will not.