Adrienne Harry

What protocol does the American government follow in their targeted killing program? Who decides who should be killed and how effective is this program at combating terrorism? Why is the program shrouded in secrecy and should the government be more transparent about targeted killings? Jameel Jaffer, distinguished fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, examined these hard-hitting questions at a discussion at the Munk School in November.

The talk, moderated by Citizen Lab Director Ron Deibert, was based on Jaffer’s new book The Drone Memos: Targeted Killing, Secrecy and the Law, a collection of legal memos and documents underlying the United States government’s controversial targeted killing program. Using armed drones, the U.S. government carries out extrajudicial assassinations of suspected terrorists and militants. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency began using drones as part of their counter terrorism operations in 2002 and thus far, at least six American citizens have been killed in the program.

“During President Obama’s campaign, he promised to wind down America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and bring American soldiers back from those wars. He wanted to fulfill that campaign promise, but didn’t want to disengage from conflicts in those places,” said Jaffer. “He saw drones as a less costly and less visible alternative to those large scale wars. But when he started going down that path, it quickly became evident to human rights lawyers that there were going to be new questions presented by that set of policies.”

In the United States, drones have become a legacy passed down from administration to administration. According to Jaffer, former president George H.W. Bush authorized 50 drone strikes, mostly in Pakistan, during his last year in office and the country’s drone campaign quickly expanded under President Obama.

“At one point, you could have thought of the drone campaign as an exception; a reaction to 9/11 and to the threat of terrorism as it existed eight years ago,” said Jaffer. “But you can’t plausibly say it’s exceptional now. There is an entire legal and policy apparatus in place now that is meant to ensure that drone policies continue indefinitely.”

Jaffer explained that targeted killing has become institutionalized since it was first introduced, meaning that now that the program is in place, it is unlikely to go away. An infrastructure has been developed to support the program’s policies, with countless legal documents created to justify the killings. Because of this, future administrations inherit the power to kill suspected terrorists – including American citizens – without input from the courts. It’s a detail Jaffer expressed many have overlooked until recently. “For the last eight years, Americans invested sweeping powers in the presidency because they trusted the president. But the powers outlast any particular leader,” he noted. “Many human rights lawyers and civil libertarians have been making this point all along. Even if you trust the current president, you don’t know who the next leader is going to be.”

Jaffer noted that a Trump presidency makes the future of the targeted killing program unclear. “Trump hasn’t spelled out in any detail what his policy program is on drones. But his gestures are not encouraging. He’s suggested that he wants to resurrect torture policies; he wants to expand the war against ISIS and expand the drone campaign. All of this is worrying.”

But do Canadians have reason to be concerned? While the Canadian military does not yet used armed drones, Jaffer cautions against dismissing the U.S. drone campaign as strictly an American issue.

“Canada has intelligence agencies that regularly share information with the United States. Canada should be asking sharp questions about what information is being shared, what restrictions are being placed on the way information is being used and how, over the last few years, has the information been used? Those are important questions.”

December 13, 2016