White House seeks to establish rules for drone strikes

The administration has reportedly carried out more than 300 attacks without a governing legal framework

Published November 25, 2012 9:31PM (EST)

The Obama administration was working to codify rules for drone strikes in the weeks leading up to the election, the New York Times reported today. Though the CIA and military have carried out more than 2,500 killings with drones since President Obama took office, the administration has reportedly not finalized a legal framework dictating when it is justified in those attacks.

Initially the administration had wanted to establish rules to smooth the transition in the event of a Romney administration. "The matter may have lost some urgency after Nov. 6. ...[but] the administration is still pushing to make the rules formal and resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified."

From the Times:

Mr. Obama and his advisers are still debating whether remote-control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool, available to help allied governments attack their enemies or to prevent militants from controlling territory.

Though publicly the administration presents a united front on the use of drones, behind the scenes there is longstanding tension. The Defense Department and the C.I.A. continue to press for greater latitude to carry out strikes; Justice Department and State Department officials, and the president’s counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, have argued for restraint, officials involved in the discussions say.

Despite disagreements within the administration, the public shouldn't expect to gain much insight into the decisions behind drone attacks anytime soon.

In court, "The government has refused even to acknowledge the existence of the drone program in Pakistan," according to the Times. While the administration appears to be working through the issue, "The draft rule book for drone strikes that has been passed among agencies over the last several months is so highly classified, officials said, that it is hand-carried from office to office rather than sent by e-mail."

By Alex Halperin

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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Afghanistan Assassination Drone National Security Pakistan President Obama Terrorism