For a country exhausted after more than a decade of war, remote-controlled drones—unmanned machines that deliver swift death to terrorists—are undeniably tempting. President Obama has ordered hundreds of strikes on "high-value," as well as medium- and low-value, targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The administration says these killings have decimated al-Qaeda's top ranks and done significant damage to the Taliban but refuses to say much more. Obama has yet to explain the basics of the broader policy: how decisions are made to send drones across sovereign borders; how officials determine a target is dangerous enough to merit assassination; what oversight is in place; and what is done to limit civilian casualties.
That wall of silence is starting to erode. Squeezed by news leaks leading up to the confirmation hearing for John Brennan, Obama's choice to head up the CIA, the White House agreed to share with Congress a classified memo explaining the legal justification for targeting U.S. citizens abroad who are members of al-Qaeda. In his State of the Union address, Obama pledged to work with Congress to ensure "our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists" is consistent with American laws and "even more transparent to the American people and the world." He did not use the word drone.
This new pledge of accountability comes amid growing international criticism. Because of the success rate and perceived bloodlessness—at least for Americans—of drone strikes, the U.S. public and Congress have until now been highly supportive. Pretty much everyone else sees the campaign as a symbol of American arrogance and impunity—much like torture (which Obama ended) or the detention camp at Guantánamo (which he tried and failed to close).