Congress is hotly debating media leaks about President Obama's "kill list" of terrorists to be targeted by drones. Congress should be debating the drone policy itself.
To be clear, I'm not anti-drone. I am an Army veteran. If a flying robot can accomplish what otherwise would require an invasion of ground troops and a much larger potential for casualties, I say, send in the drones.
I'm hardly alone. An ABC-Washington Post poll earlier this year found that an overwhelming 83 percent of Americans approve of Obama's drone policy.
Over the last three years, the Obama administration has carried out at least 294 covert drone strikes in Pakistan alone, according to the New America Foundation's online drones database. That's more than six times the 44 approved under President George W. Bush, under whose watch the weapon was developed. Drone wars also have expanded to Yemen and other terrorist hangouts.
The foundation compiles its data from news sources because the administration refuses to discuss the program for national security reasons. The secrecy is understandable but also a problem, because sometimes our drones hit the wrong target. Congress needs to assert itself to hold the executive branch accountable.
But as unmanned aircraft have become the weapon of choice for surveillance and targeted killing in our war against terrorists, many questions have been raised about the policy's legality, morality and effectiveness.
Cloaked in secrecy, the program essentially has charged, tried and executed suspects, including at least one American citizen, without a hearing, a trial or an official conviction.
To tighten up standards for such decisions, various news reports quoting unnamed sources have described Obama as taking that decision into his own hands — literally. The New York Times described the president perusing what were described as mug shots and brief biographies on terrorist "baseball cards" to choose who on a "kill list" would be targeted next for elimination by a drone.
"Several were Americans," the Times piece by Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported. "Two were teenagers, including a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years."
This report and others ignited outrage in Congress, but more over the leaks than the legal, moral or effectiveness questions the stories raised.
It would be more productive for Congress, which authorized the president's war against terrorists, to pursue serious questions raised by the media accounts as to the policy's effectiveness.
For example, one revelation in the Times story stands out, regarding Obama's "disputed method for counting civilian casualties."
His approach, the story says, "in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials …" In other words, shoot first and ask questions later?
Congress and the White House need to review the decision-making behind drone strikes in light of presidential war powers and the rights of Congress and citizens. Accountability matters, even in an election year.