The recent release of a Justice Department white paper regarding targeted killings of U.S. citizens abroad sparked a great deal of controversy. Much of the debate focused on whether the U.S. President has “the legal authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil.” 1 The answer provided by the Attorney General was simply one word: “No.” Although this is an important issue worth examining, it ignores a more fundamental one that deserves further discussion: the so-called institutionalization of this weapon and its use off the battlefield.
President Barack Obama’s efforts to establish explicit guidelines and standards regarding the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) against terrorists overseas significantly accelerated before the 2012 presidential election. As reported by The New York Times , President Obama’s advisers intended to turn these guidelines over to a new Romney administration had the election brought different results. 2 These guidelines essentially “institutionalize” the drone program and attempt to “put a legal architecture in place” for their use in the future. But the attempt to establish UAV strikes as a customary counterterrorism tool became even more complicated when a United Nations expert initiated an investigation into the legality of their use. 3 Now more than ever it is critical to examine the legal justifications given by the administration and whether they will remain relevant as the military withdraws and ends the armed conflict in Afghanistan.