The NYT’s Trouble with Drones

The New York Times is trying to push the administration on Obama’s illegal drone program. Their appraisal is that the Obama administration is dragging its feet when it comes to reforming the program. They want to make sure the drones have a modicum of legal cover, and advocate a judicial review panel similar to the FISA court, the oversight body charged with reviewing the federal government’s use of foreign wiretaps.

The problem, for the Times, is not the morality of the strikes themselves, for the use of drones, in the eyes of Americans, have “become a permanent fixture of national policy.” Nor is it secretive role of the CIA and the lack of transparency. They see the division between military strikes and those carried out by the CIA is crucial because, “if American military forces hit Pakistan,” now largely the CIA’s role, “it could be an act of war.” A legal nicety the victims of the strikes, overwhelming civilian, no doubt appreciate.

More significant for the Times is that the program is becoming embarrassing. “Popular discontent with the drone program,” they write, “has built slowly,” and the strikes are now “projecting a harmful, violent image of American foreign policy.” For them, the drones mar the face of US human rights like the scars of Guantanamo, Abu Gharab, and Iraq. And to solve this “image” problem the Editorial Board is looking for cosmetic solutions.

The Times advocates “some form of judicial review, like the special court that approves wiretaps for intelligence gathering, before it kills American citizens.” This is a remarkable formulation. In it is an implicit endorsement of the president’s assassination powers. As Glenn Greenwald writes it’s hard to get more authoritarian than endorsing the executive’s unilateral and secret power to kill.

Furthermore, seeking a solution in a hidden court is no solution. The wiretap court is a secretive court, with no public accountability, that has done little to stop illegal wiretaps of US citizens. In fact, the executive, starting with Bush, has openly flaunted the surveillance court, leaving serious privacy violations on going. The case is much more serious when dealing with questions of life and death.

The Times formulation of the problem with drones and their possible solution demonstrates the poverty of political discourse in the US. In essence, the journal of record advocates a secretive court for executive military authority that the President has indicated will be used to kill US citizens. Our descent toward political tyranny is marked by this editorial. When the most prestigious, and liberal, mainstream “watchdog” news outlet, marking the consensus thinking of the liberal establishment, argues for secretive courts, executive assassinations, and legal framework for gross immorality, we are in bad shape. It’s hard to imagine a position to the right, short of Heideggerian fascism, that could be any worse.