The CIA has ramped up its drone strikes under President Obama, killing somewhere between 1,350 and 2,250 people in Pakistan alone over the past three years. Yet the US has identified virtually none of those victims, nor provided any legal rationale for their killings, the Washington Post observes, and that’s got civil liberties experts and the international community on edge. When one State Department legal adviser sought to lay out the legal basis in a speech to put allies at ease, “the immediate reaction was you can’t talk about our covert programs,” one official says.
Under US laws, the drones are theoretically justified by a post-9/11 law giving the president the power to strike to prevent future attacks. The administration thinks it’s earned the benefit of the doubt by closing CIA secret prisons and ending torture. “They’ve based it on the personal legitimacy of Obama—the ‘trust me’ concept,” says one law professor. “That’s not a viable concept." The UN agreed in a report last year, decrying the US' "vaguely defined license to kill" as a "major accountability vacuum." But officials argue that terrorists could exploit knowledge about the system, creating human shields, for example, that matched the CIA’s acceptable collateral damage level.