US President Barack Obama has fast-tracked the creation of a new rulebook on when it is ‘legal’ to use drones for targeted killings. Obama reportedly feared that drones would be abused in a potential new administration after the November elections.
Two anonymous Obama administration officials claimed that explicit rules were being developed to establish clear standards and procedures for when “lethal action is acceptable,” the New York Times reported.
The administration wanted to accelerate the codification of these rules when there was a possibility that Obama would lose the November 6 presidential elections, and the “levers might no longer be in our hands,” one of the officials said.
However, since Obama was reelected to another four-year term, the rulebook “can now be finished at a more leisurely pace,” they said, adding that Obama “did not want to leave an amorphous program to his successor.”
Work on the rulebook began in the summer after it was revealed that Obama played a personal role in approving drone assassination strikes against those on the White House’s “kill list.”
The development of rulebook has sparked intergovernmental disagreements between the CIA and the departments of defense, justice and state, the anonymous officials claimed.
At the center of the debate is whether the remote-control killing should be used as a last resort against direct threats to the US, or instead be available for other purposes such as aiding allies by killing combatants and securing territory.
Since Obama took office in 2009, more than 300 CIA and military drone strikes have killed about 2,500 people.
However, the US drone program remains technically classified – a hardcopy of the rulebook draft is reportedly being hand-carried from office to office, rather than emailed.
Many countries, organizations and activists view drone strikes as a violation of international law. The US previously condemned assassinations when Israel used targeted killing on suspected terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
However, after 9/11 the US adopted the policy that it is at war with Al Qaeda, and thus can legally defend itself by using drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists abroad.
During Obama’s term in office, drone strikes assassinated senior Al Qaeda officials, Yemeni rebel forces (some of whom were wearing suicide vests) and, most notably, suspected or unknown militants in attacks dubbed ‘signature strikes.’
Witnesses on the ground said that drone strikes have led to the deaths of innocent civilians.
Signature strikes are one of drone critics’ main concerns, who cite the unreliable information used to identify the targets and the risks to nearby civilians.
The UN is also taking action against the US drone war by setting up an investigation unit as early as next year, which will examine the legality of US drone attacks abroad in cases where civilians have been killed.
Medea Benjamin, activist and cofounder of antiwar group Code Pink, claimed that the US is breaking international law.
"That they are trying to write the rules for something that is illegal is disgusting," Benjamin told the Guardian. “There is nothing [in the rulebook] about taking drones out of the hands of the CIA – which is not a military organization – or getting rid of signature strikes, where there is no evidence that people are involved in terrorist activities."
The US government is currently facing two lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the New York Times, which challenge targeted killings and seek more information on the issue.