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Drone Killings Debated at Fordham Law


Two constitutional law experts squared off in front of a packed auditorium at Fordham School of Law on Sept. 24 to debate a topic so sensitive, much about it is still unknown: The killing of terrorists by remotely controlled drones.

“Executive Power and Civil Liberties: Debating Obama’s Targeted Killing Program,” pitted against each other Martin S. Flaherty, Leitner Family Professor of International Human Rights Law and founding co-director of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, and Jack Goldsmith, Henry L. Shattuck Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.

William M. Treanor, Martin S. Flaherty and Jack Goldsmith Photo by Zach Hetrick

Goldsmith, who was also a former assistant attorney general at the Office of Legal Counsel and former special counsel to the Department of Defense, lead off the with a defense of drone strikes, which are estimated to have happened 320 times in the last five years, mostly in Pakistan but also in Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

U.S. and international law justifies killing individuals when they’re not on a “hot battlefield,” for reasons of self-defense, and if the country where they reside is unable or unwilling to detain them. The newest generation of drones allows for a greater emphasis on the targeting of individuals, cutting down on civilian casualties.

“We can use ICBMS, we can put troops on the ground who can shoot at the individuals, or we can use the drone technologies that are becoming increasingly prevalent, said Goldsmith. “I believe that the use of drones and the focus on individuation should be seen as a humanitarian victory, and not something that we should be upset about.

“Once you acknowledge that we’re engaged in war with non state terrorists groups, targeted killing, especially with drone technologies, is the most humanitarian, cost effective means of dealing with the threat.”

While Flaherty did not dispute the usefulness of drones in the fight against terrorism, he questioned whether it is prudent to allow the executive branch exclusive discretion over them. Normally, when the government wants to conduct surveillance or have someone detained, it has to work with the courts, he said.

The drone program, on the other hand, is swathed in secrecy and “does not exist” according to the federal government; the only reason the public knows about the casualties it has generated is because of the work of journalists and activists. Therefore, it’s impossible to know whether care is being taken to only target terrorists or how many civilians have been killed, he said.

“We don’t know enough of the facts to base policy decisions,” said Flaherty. “We don’t know enough to make intelligent decisions about the balance between security payoff and violation of individual’s rights, as well as the back fire.”
Flaherty noted that the Times Square bomber said one of his inspirations was the fact that there was an alleged drone attack that killed 20 civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“If that’s what motivated him, that’s going to be the tradeoff,” Flaherty said.

The panel, which took place at the McNally Amphitheatre, was introduced by Fordham Law School Dean Michael M. Martin. Photo by Zach Hetrick

Both Flaherty and Goldsmith agreed that President Obama is taking seriously the responsibility of when and if to target and kill foreigners overseas, or—in the case of the September 2011 killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen—an American citizen.
At the end of the day, what makes people squeamish is the notion of allowing one person to decide who lives and who dies, Goldsmith said.

“That’s really what the targeting issue puts on the table, and we have to face that. This is something commanders in the field have to do all the time with a lot less deliberation, a lot less intelligence, a lot less foresight, and a lot less legal input,” he said.

Flaherty cautioned, however, that future administrations might not be so cautious. He cited Israel as an example of how the courts could be included in the process.

“The Israeli Supreme Court said ‘Look, we defer to the executive when it comes to specific targeting decisions; that’s their expertise. But our expertise is interpreting the law and making sure that actual operations comport with it,’” he said.
“If Israel can fight terrorism with judicial scrutiny, I think the United States can as well.”

William M. Treanor, executive vice president and dean of the Law Center, professor of law at Georgetown University, and former dean of Fordham Law School, moderated the evening, which was sponsored by Peggy Hill, LAW ’64.


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