A federal appeals court rebuffed the Obama administration’s drone policy on Friday, ruling that the CIA stretched its considerable secrecy powers “too far.” The stinging decision may be the biggest news in the war on terror that you’ve never heard about.
The ruling lays down a key marker for a significant shift in counterterrorism policy. Under President Barack Obama, the United States has moved from detaining suspected terrorists to killing many of them in targeted attacks. There were 10 times as many drone deaths in 2010 as 2004, according to the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative. This is why there are now fewer pressing questions about detention or Guantanamo, a vestige of post-September 11 battles. The United States hardly ever captures any new terror suspects.
The politicians and the chattering class, however, have been slow to recognize this shift.
Congress still keeps reauthorizing bans against transferring Guantanamo detainees into the United States, a backward-looking restriction that hampers prosecutions. Meanwhile, it has failed to pass any laws to meaningfully oversee drone killings. The media has also overlooked the president’s expanding authority to order killings without any oversight by the other branches of government.
That left a vacuum.
Most Republicans gave Obama a pass on executive power. A few Democrats objected, primarily through careful letters. The White House simply ignored many of them, as Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) documented. So the loudest stand on the issue was left to Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in his instantly infamous filibuster this month.