The following is an excerpt from an article in The Economist. Readers who want more can link here.
THE killing in Yemen of Anwar al-Awlaki and three al-Qaeda associates by a drone on September 30th has caused far more fuss in America than previous drone attacks. The reason is that al-Awlaki and one of his fellows were American citizens. Few will mourn al-Awlaki’s passing. But such apparently extra-judicial executions provoke three broad questions. Are drone strikes compatible with the laws of war? Was this killing legal? And, whatever the legality, is this system of meting out justice compatible with America’s longer-term interests? Our answers are yes, maybe and no.
The use of drones has increased dramatically, especially under Barack Obama……….Moreover, as this newspaper has argued before, armed drones do not undermine the rules of war. Ethical worries may mount in the future, especially if the armed forces ask for permission to give their machines greater autonomy. But for the moment they remain conventional weapons, with humans subject to the conventional tests that their action be discriminate and proportionate. The remote-pilot in, say, Nevada who pushed the button that killed al-Awlaki is as answerable for his actions as the pilot in the cockpit of a fast jet; and so are the drone pilot’s commanders—right up to Mr Obama himself.
There are questions to be asked even under American law. What precisely, for instance, were the grounds for killing the other American jihadist, a website editor against whom the evidence seems less definitive? More information is needed. And is the president’s right to place an individual on a “kill or capture list” greater than that individual’s constitutional right to due process? The Supreme Court should look at this rapidly.
Two things would make America’s conduct somewhat less controversial. First, all drone killings should be carried out by the armed forces, not the CIA: they must be part of the conventional chain of command. And second, there should be some system of formal judicial review to determine whether the evidence against someone is sufficiently strong to make that person a target for assassination. America has a potent new weapon. Now it needs to adapt it to its principles.