The Obama administration has sharply expanded the shadow war against terrorists, using both the military and the C.I.A. to track down and kill hundreds of them, in a dozen countries, on and off the battlefield. The drone program has been effective, killing more than 400 Al Qaeda militants this year alone, according to American officials, but fewer than 10 noncombatants. But assassinations are a grave act and subject to abuse — and imitation by other countries. The government needs to do a better job of showing the world that it is acting in strict compliance with international law.
The United States has the right under international law to try to prevent attacks being planned by terrorists connected to Al Qaeda, up to and including killing the plotters. But it is not within the power of a commander in chief to simply declare anyone anywhere a combatant and kill them, without the slightest advance independent oversight. The authorization for military force approved by Congress a week after 9/11 empowers the president to go after only those groups or countries that committed or aided the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration’s distortion of that mandate led to abuses that harmed the United States around the world.
The issue of who can be targeted applies directly to the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen hiding in Yemen, who officials have admitted is on an assassination list. Did he inspire through words the Army psychiatrist who shot up Fort Hood, Tex., last November, and the Nigerian man who tried to blow up an airliner on Christmas? Or did he actively participate in those plots, and others? The difference is crucial. If the United States starts killing every Islamic radical who has called for jihad, there will be no end to the violence.
American officials insist that Mr. Awlaki is involved with actual terror plots. But human rights lawyers working on his behalf say that is not the case, and have filed suit to get him off the target list. The administration wants the case thrown out on state-secrets grounds. The Obama administration needs to go out of its way to demonstrate that it is keeping its promise to do things differently than the Bush administration did. It must explain how targets are chosen, demonstrate that attacks are limited and are a last resort, and allow independent authorities to oversee the process.
PUBLIC GUIDELINES The administration keeps secret its standards for putting people on terrorist or assassination lists. In March, Harold Koh, legal adviser to the State Department, said the government adheres to international law, attacking only military targets and keeping civilian casualties to an absolute minimum. “Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust,” he said in a speech, without describing them.
Privately, government officials say no C.I.A. drone strike takes place without the approval of the United States ambassador to the target country, the chief of the C.I.A. station, a deputy at the agency, and the agency’s director. So far, President Obama’s system of command seems to have prevented any serious abuses, but the approval process is entirely within the administration. After the abuses under President Bush, the world is not going to accept a simple “trust us” from the White House.
There have been too many innocent people rounded up for detention and subjected to torture, too many cases of mistaken identity or trumped-up connections to terror. Unmanned drones eliminate the element of risk to American forces and make it seductively easy to attack.
The government needs to make public its guidelines for determining who is a terrorist and who can be targeted for death. It should clearly describe how it follows international law in these cases and list the internal procedures and checks it uses before a killing is approved. That can be done without formally acknowledging the strikes are taking place in specific countries.
LIMIT TARGETS The administration should state that it is following international law by acting strictly in self-defense, targeting only people who are actively planning or participating in terror, or who are leaders of Al Qaeda or the Taliban — not those who raise funds for terror groups, or who exhort others to acts of terror.
Special measures are taken before an American citizen is added to the terrorist list, officials say, requiring the approval of lawyers from the National Security Council and the Justice Department. But again, those measures have not been made public. Doing so would help ensure that people like Mr. Awlaki are being targeted for terrorist actions, not their beliefs or associations.
A LAST RESORT Assassination should in every case be a last resort. Before a decision is made to kill, particularly in areas away from recognized battlefields, the government needs to consider every other possibility for capturing the target short of lethal force. Terrorists operating on American soil should be captured using police methods, and not subject to assassination.
If practical, the United States should get permission from a foreign government before carrying out an attack on its soil. The government is reluctant to discuss any of these issues publicly, in part to preserve the official fiction that the United States is not waging a formal war in Pakistan and elsewhere, but it would not harm that effort to show the world how seriously it takes international law by making clear its limits.
INDEPENDENT OVERSIGHT Dealing out death requires additional oversight outside the administration. Particularly in the case of American citizens, like Mr. Awlaki, the government needs to employ some due process before depriving someone of life. It would be logistically impossible to conduct a full-blown trial in absentia of every assassination target, as the lawyers for Mr. Awlaki prefer. But judicial review could still be employed.
The government could establish a court like the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes wiretaps on foreign agents inside the United States. Before it adds people to its target list and begins tracking them, the government could take its evidence to this court behind closed doors — along with proof of its compliance with international law — and get the equivalent of a judicial warrant in a timely and efficient way.
Congressional leaders are secretly briefed on each C.I.A. attack, and say they are satisfied with the information they get and with the process. Nonetheless, that process is informal and could be changed at any time by this president or his successors. Formal oversight is a better way of demonstrating confidence in American methods.
Self-defense under international law not only shows the nation’s resolve and power, but sends a powerful message to other countries that the United States couples drastic action with careful judgment.