How will Obama's national security speech affect drone policy?

By Elizabeth Lefebvre| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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Bishop Richard Pates, Chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace wrote letters this week to both the national security adviser and the chairs of several House and Senate committees urging more open discussion about drones while also emphasizing greater scrutiny in their use. Pates got his wish at least from the executive branch, as yesterday President Obama spoke in the first major national security speech of his second term of scaling back of the nation’s covert drone program.

Obama covered a lot of ground in the speech, formally acknowledging for the first time that the United States was responsible for the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011 while also recommitting to his goal of closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. This was all part of Obama’s “comprehensive terror strategy” that he hopes will reflect the continuing threat of terrorism in a world where the United States transitions out of a wartime mentality.

In regards to drone policy, the New York Times summarizes some of the changes going forward: "The new classified policy guidance imposes tougher standards for when drone strikes can be authorized, limiting them to targets who pose 'a continuing, imminent threat to Americans' and cannot feasibly be captured, according to government officials. The guidance also begins a process of phasing the C.I.A. out of the drone war and shifting operations to the Pentagon."

Pates’ letters focused on the legality and morality of drone strikes. Obama was quite clear on this matter: This is legal, though not without moral complications. "This is a just war, a war waged proportionally, in last resort and in self-defense," Obama said. "And yet as our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance, for the same progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power, or risk abusing it."

In his speech Obama mentioned being haunted by the civilian deaths that have resulted from drones, but firmly stated that the deaths are and always have been an unfortunate consequence of war. He added that the potential for greater harm justifies the strikes that can kill civilians: “To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties,” he said.

Some of the language in the speech was a bit vague, but this seems to be a step toward the discussion and transparency that Pates and so many others have been calling for over the years regarding the drone program. "From our use of drones to the detention of terrorist suspects, the decisions we are making will define the type of nation and world that we leave to our children," he said. Let's hope these decisions he has made will bring us in the right direction.