Part IV What the U.S. Should Do

The U.S. drone program and its practices regarding targeted strikes against al-Qaeda and its associated forces are lawful. They are lawful because the United States is currently engaged in an armed conflict with those terrorist entities and because the United States has an inherent right to defend itself against imminent threats to its security. Moreover, the available evidence indicates that U.S. military and intelligence forces conduct targeted strikes in a manner consistent with international law. Military and intelligence officials go to great lengths to identify al-Qaeda operatives that pose an imminent threat and continually reassess the level of that threat. Decisions on each potential target are debated among U.S. officials before the target is placed in the “disposition matrix.” In conducting targeted strikes U.S. forces strive to minimize civilian casualties, although such casualties cannot always be prevented.

The United States will continue to face asymmetric threats from non-state actors operating from the territory of nations that are either unwilling or unable to suppress the threats. To confront these threats, the United States must retain its most effective operational capabilities, including targeted strikes by armed drones…

Moreover, the United States must continue to affirm its inherent right to self-defense to eliminate threats to its national security, regardless of the presence or absence of an armed conflict recognized by international law.

To that end, the United States should:

Continue to affirm existing use-of-force authorities

During the past three years, senior officials of the Obama Administration have publicly set out in significant detail U.S. policies and practices regarding drone strikes. The Administration should continue to do so, emphasizing that U.S. policies adhere to widely recognized international law.

No Drawdown of Strikes

At the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago, NATO agreed that the vast majority of U.S. and other NATO forces would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, a time frame that President Obama confirmed during this year’s State of the Union address.

Congress should pass no legislation that could be interpreted as an erosion of the inherent right of the United States to defend itself against imminent threats posed by transnational terrorist organizations.

Not create a drone court

The concept of a drone court is fraught with danger and may be an unconstitutional interference with the executive branch’s authority to wage war. U.S. armed forces have been lawfully targeting enemy combatants in armed conflicts for more than 200 years without being second-guessed by Congress or a secret “national security court.” Targeting decisions, including those made in connection with drone strikes, are carefully deliberated by military officers and intelligence officials based on facts and evidence gathered from a variety of human, signals, and imagery intelligence sources. During an armed conflict, all al-Qaeda operatives are subject to targeting; therefore, a drone court scrutinizing targeting decisions would serve no legitimate purpose.


The debate within the international legal, academic, and human rights communities on the legality and propriety of drone strikes will likely continue unabated. To surrender to the demands of such critics would be equivalent to forgetting the lessons of September 11, when a small, non-state terrorist organization operating from a nation with which the United States was not at war planned and launched an attack that killed almost 3,000 Americans.

The United States should preserve its ability to use all of the tools in its arsenal to ensure that the plots hatched by terrorist organizations do not become successful attacks on the U.S. homeland. Armed drones have proved to be one of the most effective and discriminating tools available to U.S. forces, and their lawful use should continue until such time as non-state, transnational terrorist organizations no longer present an imminent threat to the United States.

Steven Groves is Bernard and Barbara Lomas Senior Research Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.


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