In an interview this week, Jessica Yellin, CNN's chief White House correspondent, asked President Obama how he decides who will live and who will die. "I've got to be a little careful here," Obama replied, because "there are classified issues." But he was able to assure the American people that "our criteria for using [drones] is [sic] very tight and very strict": The threat must be "serious and not speculative," capture has to be "very difficult," and the risk of "civilian casualties" must be minimized. How does the government make sure these criteria are satisfied?
We have an extensive process with a lot of checks, a lot of eyes looking at it. Obviously, as president, I'm ultimately responsible for decisions that are made by the administration. But I think what the American people need to know is the seriousness with which we take both the responsibility to keep them safe but also the seriousness with which we take the need to abide by our traditions of rule of law and due process.
All of this is done secretly, of course, and all of the "eyes looking at it" belong to people who work for the president, so you kinda have to take Obama's word for it. In his view, the executive branch is checking itself, so there is no need for judicial oversight. And he should know, right? He used to teach constitutional law. But doesn't this arrangement effectively give one man the power to kill anyone he identifies as an enemy of the state? Yes and no:
I can't get too deeply into how these things work. But as I said, as commander in chief ultimately I am responsible for the process that we've set up.
Obama conceded that singling people out for death dealt at a distance is "something that you have to struggle with, because if you don't it's very easy to slip into a situation in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means." What a relief to know that the president is not bending the rules when he orders the summary execution of people he considers threats to national security.
Obama closed the exchange by flattering his interviewer. "It's very important for the president and the entire culture of our national security team to continually ask tough questions," he said. "Are we doing the right thing? Are we abiding by the rule of law? Are we abiding by due process?" Yellin asked those tough questions, and she got her answer: yes. The rest is classified.