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Editorial: President shouldn't wield drone power alone

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night (Jan. 31, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

The president's nominee to head the CIA provided a long overdue, but frustratingly incomplete, public account of the administration's justification for the targeted execution of American citizens it believes to be terrorists.

As President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser for four years, John Brennan was one of the few people in the loop for those life-or-death decisions. In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday, he said the intent of targeted killings by drone attack was not to punish anyone for past acts, but only as a last resort to save lives. But he shed no light on crucial questions: what evidence the president needs to decide an American should be killed and whether people can be targeted and killed inside the United States.

Drone strikes have proved incredibly effective in eliminating al-Qaida leaders and disrupting that terrorist organization while sparing the need to put American boots on the ground in places like Yemen and Somalia. But the policy controlling their use should not be shrouded in secrecy. It should be established in conjunction with Congress. And, another branch of government, the judiciary, must have a role in ensuring there is a rock-solid case for targeting an American citizen -- perhaps via a special federal court empowered to secretly review the evidence to ensure it meets a rigorous standard of proof.

Drones are not inherently evil. They're tools of war, not so different from missiles that are also unmanned and strike targets from afar. It's the precision with which they can target individuals anywhere in the world that has made them controversial. In that way, the technology has advanced faster than policies for its use. Congress needs to catch up.

The United States must set a high standard to determine when targeted executions are legal and justified. That legal framework controlling who is marked for death, why, and on what evidence, would be an important constraint on executive power. And it could be the model for an international standard that will be increasingly necessary as other nations begin to use drones to execute their enemies.

Thursday's hearing was an encouraging sign that Congress may finally step up, as it should, to help establish those standards and to meet its oversight responsibility. It was apparently Brennan's need to testify that prodded Obama to allow members of the intelligence committee to see Justice Department memos spelling out its legal case for targeted killings of American citizens. Until Wednesday, the White House had refused to even acknowledge the documents existed. That was an indefensible position Obama should never have adopted.

In an unsigned Justice Department white paper leaked to NBC News, the administration asserted authority to kill a U.S. citizen abroad if he is a senior operational member of al-Qaida or an associated force engaged in planning operations to kill Americans, poses an "imminent" threat and if capture is infeasible. It leaves it to "an informed high-level official of the U.S. government" -- presumably the president -- to decide who fits the profile and how distant in the future can be considered imminent.

Congress must ensure there are independent checks on any president's power to kill Americans.