President Obama this week tentatively opened the door to the establishment of a drone court, to provide greater accountability for drone strikes on Al Qaeda affiliates abroad. The idea is drawing mixed reviews.
Among the striking moments in President Obama’s national security speech this week, in which he argued it's time to wean America off its nation-at-war mentality, was his apparent receptiveness to the idea of establishing a “drone court" as a check on the use of those weapons.
Called “kill courts” by critics, the proceedings in these proposed courtrooms would determine whom US forces can legally kill via drone strikes.
They presumably would operate much the way that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts do now. Since 1978, these courts have been convened secretly to approve government wiretapping operations on US soil.
Until recently, drone strikes rose steadily under Mr. Obama. In 2010, there were 122 of them in Pakistan, killing some 849 people, according to a report by the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank. In 2012, such strikes in Pakistan dropped to 50, killing about 306 people.
Civilian casualties as a result of drone attacks have also been reduced, according to the foundation. “That is partly the result of a sharply reduced number of drone strikes in Pakistan – 12 so far in 2013, compared with a record 122 in 2010 – and also more precise targeting,” according to its report.
The casualty rate for civilians and “unknowns” – in other words, people who are not identified definitively as either militants or civilians – was roughly 40 percent under President George W. Bush. It is now 16 percent, according to the foundation.
The proliferation of drone strikes in recent years prompts a much greater need for oversight, say critics of the drone program, echoing warnings against what Obama characterized on Thursday as a “boundless war on terror.”
“Perpetual war – through drones or special forces or troops deployments – will prove self-defeating and alter our country in troubling ways,” Obama said.
He nonetheless defended drone strikes as pivotal to eliminating Al Qaeda leaders.
Looking into the future, Obama opened the door to the possibility of a “drones court” to increase oversight of the weapons' use.
“The establishment of a special court to evaluate and authorize lethal action has the benefit of bringing a third branch of government into the process,” he said in his speech. But he also sounded a cautionary note, saying such a court would raise "constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority.”