If the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee – and a member of Congress – claims unfamiliarity with possibly the major plank of U.S. drone policy, as Debbie Wasserman-Schultz did last week when asked about President Obama's "kill list" of those open for assassination based on U.S. intelligence, then what makes anyone believe the average American voter has a grasp on the killing done in their name in the likes of Pakistan and Yemen?
This is the question Bob Schieffer, longtime journalist and host of CBS’s Face the Nation, must ask himself ahead of the foreign policy (and final) presidential debate he will moderate Monday evening. He has an opportunity – and, arguably, a duty – to pose serious questions about a secretive, life-and-death U.S. government policy in front of tens of millions watching the two presidential candidates weeks before they go to the polls. The first two presidential debates had 67.2 million and 65.6 million viewers, respectively, meaning Monday’s debate would likely be the largest American audience to all at once pay attention to the subject of U.S. drones strikes that are done in their name. That is, if Schieffer dares press the candidates on what may very well be the most ominous power a president has: choosing who to kill.
The numerous legal, ethical and tactical questions about America’s use of drone strikes overseas – which the Obama administration justifies by pointing to the 2001 authorization of military force against perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks – are enough to warrant the candidates’ full views on how they would use drones in the next four years and how they view said litany of concerns over the policy. (Just Foreign Policy’s Robert Naiman has summarized the issues well.) The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has counted as many as 884 civilian deaths – including 176 children – in Pakistan alone as a result of U.S. drone use, which counters the government’s claims that drones are a precise tool that allows for minimum “collateral damage.” And a recent report by researchers at Stanford and NYU found strong evidence of “double tapping,” or drones firing on civilian rescuers following an initial strike on certain targets, in Pakistan.
That President Obama has a “kill list,” revealed by the New York Times earlier this year, is one of the most shocking, revealing parts of the drone policy. The “kill list,” sans due process or any real judicial or congressional oversight, is comprised of individuals the Obama administration has deemed terrorists worthy of assassination, usually by way of a CIA drone strike. Needless to say, this “kill list” has been the subject of much debate, though the U.S. government does not officially acknowledge the CIA's drone program, much less share results of its strikes with the public.
So what about a top government official like Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee? One would assume she’s heard of the “kill list” at the very least. She may not speak ill of her party’s leader and president that uses such power, but she has to have heard of this controversial policy, right? Independent journalist Luke Rudkowski recently asked the chairwoman about the prospect of Mitt Romney, if elected president, using this authority Obama has claimed. Wasserman-Schultz, who is presumably an expert at deflecting reporters’ questions given she’s the DNC chair, treats the question as if it were a far-flung conspiracy theory, claiming she’s never heard of any “kill list.”
Others have commented on how remarkable this admission – or arrogance -- was coming from a top official. Whether she truly does not know what the “kill list” is or she believes she can get away with lying about not knowing, either way it signals an overall lack of broad, nationwide familiarity with America’s drones strikes and the deep questions and implications that linger.
The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) reports the topics for Monday's debate include “America's Role in the World," “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism," and “Our Longest War—Afghanistan and Pakistan." Drone use falls into all three categories. CPD claims part of its mission is to offer “the best possible information to viewers and listeners.”
For his part, surely Schieffer, as a reporter like Rudkowski, aims to inform the public on what they need to know to make such an important decision. Schieffer told TV Guide in one of his few comments about the debate he will moderate that being picked for such important role is “one of those things that makes me say, 'Boy, I'm glad I'm a reporter.'"
Mr. Schieffer, what better way to live up to a high journalistic standard than to press Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on how they will or will not wield the power of judge, jury and executioner the next four years?