House Subcommittee Probes Legality of Drone Strikes

Scholars Offer Differing Opinions on Killings

A seldom-used tactic in the Bush Administration, the use of Predator drones to launch attacks against Pakistani territory has become ubiquitous since President Obama took office last year. As the attacks have escalated the legal questions behind them continue to grow.

Today the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs looked into the legality of killing people with unmanned drones, but the opinions of legal experts differed so much it is unlikely to provide any serious guidance on the matter.

A law professor from Notre Dame argued that the attacks were illegal, pointing to the use of CIA and civilian contractors to launch them, while a professor from Loyala law school claimed that the US was allowed to do so, though he conceded that the CIA personnel actually launching the attacks could be guilty of war crimes.

The use of unmanned drones to kill people in a nation that the United States is not at war with is a comparatively new phenomenon, so there does not exist much specific legal precedent to draw from. One of the experts, from Syracuse University, tried to draw parallels between the killings and targeted killings of bandits loyal to Pancho Villa along the Mexican border. He insisted that current intelligence laws “implicitly” give the president the power to launch targeted killings.

As the number of US attacks continues to rise, the legal basis for doing so seems bound to be questioned further in the future. In the end, however, it must be wondered why the legal questions weren’t resolved before the killings began, instead of nearly a decade hence.

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Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is news editor of