Americans need a flat, clear statement from President Barack Obama on whether he supports policy that allows an executive order to dispatch drones to kill a U.S. citizen in the United States.
The back and forth between Congress and the executive branch during confirmation proceedings for Mr. Obama's choice for CIA director, John O. Brennan, revealed a lack of clarity about the administration's position. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, held an old-style talking filibuster that lasted nearly 13 hours on the Senate floor on the question, and the president's answer is the key to preserving and protecting Americans' constitutional rights.
From Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. we have learned, in response to considerable congressional probing, that the Obama administration probably doesn't think it is appropriate to kill Americans in America without due process of law, including indictments and trials, based on the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, except in limited circumstances. The administration also has suggested that it's not a great idea to use unmanned armed vehicles -- drones -- to carry out such executions, at least in the United States.
That's not good enough. Americans need a flat promise from Mr. Obama that U.S. citizens who don't pose an imminent threat won't be executed in this country without due process of law and, especially, that armed drones won't be used for that purpose.
There is another serious problem with using armed drones on Americans in the United States: The country's drone programs are run by either the CIA or the Department of Defense. The CIA is prohibited by law from operating in the United States. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, updated in 1981, forbids the government from using federal troops in law enforcement procedures against American citizens in the United States.
None of this would prevent U.S. forces from acting against American citizens fighting against American troops on foreign battlefields. Nor would it interfere with normal law enforcement actions taken by state or local police against would-be criminals or public threats, consistent with regulations and review. If it were, for example, a case of a sniper on top of a downtown office building who could be neutralized by drone action, the circumstances would have to be reviewed very carefully by appropriate authorities and correct authorization provided before any action was taken.
Americans were prepared to some extent after 9/11 to tolerate greater infringement on their freedoms and safety, including even the fanciful declaration of the global war on terrorism, but it is now past time for Mr. Obama to put the lid on unilateral executive-branch killing of Americans, especially through the use of drones.