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Dick Polman: Why are liberals so quiet about drone war?

  • Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Published Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, at 12 a.m.

I’m amazed that so few Americans – most notably, so few liberals – have protested President Obama’s secretive remote-control assassination program. Drones have killed 3,000 people in Yemen and Pakistan, including collateral-damage civilians, but the actual numbers are secret.

So is the process. We don’t know anything about the rules of engagement, how people wind up on Obama’s hit list, who reviews the evidence, and what criteria are applied to that evidence.

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution states that “No person shall be … deprived of life … without due process of law.” Drones are inimical to due process. It would be nice to know how the administration’s lawyers have addressed that conundrum in legal memos. Those memos exist, but they remain classified. The Obama team reportedly is writing rules for itself, a set of standards and procedures, but we may never know whether these rules are scrupulously followed, or even what they are.

Granted, we’re waging a global shadow war against bad actors who don’t wear uniforms. Drones often kill known terrorists who might otherwise murder innocent Americans. No weapon is flawless. And in war, even the good guys inadvertently kill civilians; during the D-Day invasion, the Allies killed an estimated 12,000 French and Belgian civilians who lived close to Nazi-controlled railroads.

But if George W. Bush were whacking thousands of foreigners (plus a few American citizens) using a hit list shrouded in secrecy, in apparent violation of the Fifth Amendment and in blatant violation of transparency promises, rest assured that liberal Democrats would be holding hearings and denouncing him on MSNBC.

They don’t seem disturbed, however, that Obama has tripled down on Bush’s nascent drone program, and that this president is doing so on the fly and in secret. Their partisan instincts appear to be trumping adherence to principle. But all presidents, regardless of party, need to be held accountable.

We don’t know what we don’t know. Obama said in September that the drones target known terrorists who pose “an imminent threat to the United States” (allowing us to invoke the doctrine of self-defense), but “imminent” appears to be a slippery term. Obama reportedly has authorized the use of drones in what the CIA calls “signature strikes” – those conducted against unidentified people who brandish guns in regions where militants are strong. In other words, drones are sometimes used pre-emptively, to kill those who might be a threat in the future. Obama is judge, jury and executioner.

But who cares, right? This is all happening far away, to Muslims we will never know.

At least a few million Americans have watched the hot cable show “Homeland,” which is all about the unintended domestic consequences of a drone attack. The Showtime series features a hawkish vice president, in cahoots with the CIA, who authorizes a drone strike that destroys a Muslim school and kills the son of a known terrorist. The terrorist retaliates by plotting acts of revenge on American soil. Yeah, it’s just a TV show, but “Homeland” prompts the viewer to consider whether drones might inspire blowback and perpetuate the cycle of violence.

So, at a minimum, let’s ask: Is Obama authorized to kill anybody? Under what criteria? What’s in the legal memos? How is the evidence weighed? What checks and balances have been established to ensure that drones are not abused by this president and those to follow?

Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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