Week In News: Controversy Over Drone Strikes

Feb 9, 2013
Originally published on February 9, 2013 6:51 pm
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JOHN BRENNAN: The president has insisted that any actions we take will be legally grounded, will be thoroughly anchored in intelligence, will have the appropriate review process, approval process before any action is contemplated.


That's CIA director designate John Brennan during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing this past week on the president's use of drones to kill suspected terrorists, even U.S. nationals. James Fallows of "The Atlantic" joins us, as he does most Saturdays, to talk about this. Hi there, Jim.

JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Jacki.

LYDEN: Well, this really stirred the pot here in Washington this week, a leaked Justice Department memo, conversation this week about the limits of the president's power in these areas. And it made us wonder, Jim, about how President Obama is differing in his approach from his predecessors. What do you think?

FALLOWS: So often, both supporters and critics of President Obama have presented him as the anti-George W. Bush in everything, whether it's financial management or getting out of the war in Iraq. And there are, of course, ways in which their instincts are different. But I think the discussion over this memo reinforces one very important continuity between the administrations, which is that President Bush and Vice President Cheney went to great lengths under the rubric that a new kind of war had begun and it would go on for a very, very long time to arrogate to the executive branch powers it had not really had before.

The Guantanamo detention center, renditions to other countries, the use of torture, et cetera - those became quite controversial by the later years of the Bush administration. And the drone policy from the Obama team is essentially a continuation of that view of the need for untrammeled executive authority in times of unconventional war.

LYDEN: Well, and then the other thing - of course, we didn't hear this in the clip that we just heard - but the use of the word imminent threat of violent attack against the United States that the memo refers to. That is the murky language, isn't it, the word imminent, really a tricky one. And the president - is he deemed a target to be imminently threatening then can order this?

FALLOWS: It's one of several murky areas here because down through the decades or even the centuries, there's been a recognition that there are certain emergency conditions where in the heat of action, a police officer, a military officer or even a commander during the fluidity of threatened nuclear strikes has to do things without worrying about all sorts of leader accountability. We recognize that fact.

What's different here, number one, is the open-endedness of this in a time sense. Nobody proposes that this state of war against a global terrorized threat is ever going to end at any time. So that is different. And number two is the fact that in keeping with the need for some freedom in immediate action, we've had very careful means to find accountability and going back and checking whether people did the right thing.

And the fact that this entire operation seems to be without any pre-approval by anybody outside the executive branch, nor any post-action accountability makes it unusual. The founders of our Constitution did not know about drones, but they did recognize that people in executive branches tend to overestimate their own goodness and wisdom. And they will probably be better and more wise if somebody else is there checking. And that's the issue we come to again here.

LYDEN: So is this going to dog President Obama, do you think, Jim, for the remainder of his second term?

FALLOWS: I don't know whether it will dog him or how long it will go on, but I think it should continue to be discussed by both parties. And it probably is in the president's best long-term interest for there to be active exploration of this question. Through the long sweep of American history, there have always been debates about the right way to involve the public in these literally life-and-death matters.

And so I think a president who came to office saying that he wanted to be more open to sort of restore the foundations of American constitutional democracy should want to address this question head on.

LYDEN: James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic. And you can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks very much. Really interesting.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Jacki. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.