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What right does the United States have to use drones?

Answered by: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow

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Due to the 9/11 attacks and the continued threat posed by international terrorism, the United States claims it is "currently at war with al-Qaeda and its associated forces," a conflict that extends beyond traditional battlefield settings to any country that is "unwilling or unable" to take action itself. The United States reserves the right to conduct targeted killings, although only against "senior" members of al-Qaeda who "pose an imminent threat the United States of America." Although the U.S. military has a vast array of tools in its arsenal, the primary vehicle for its targeted killings program are drones, which have been used in over 95 percent of the 420—and counting—targeted killings over the last decade.

There are several gaps in this rationale that highlight the dichotomy between stated policies and actual practice. No other countries have publicly agreed with the U.S. interpretation of the scope of the battlefield and what are legitimate targets. Moreover, the Obama administration refuses to answer whether it has received government consent in countries where targeted killings occur. Finally, the vast majority of the 3,000-plus individuals killed by American drones were not senior members or leaders of al-Qaeda, but rather militants focused on fighting domestic or regional insurgencies.