Earlier this week, NBC News leaked a confidential memo from the U.S. Justice Department which concluded that the White House can order the killing of American citizens if they are considered to be “senior operational leaders” of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda or an associated force — even if there is no information which links the supposed leader to an active plot against America. 

News of the 16-page memo set off a heated national debate regarding governmental secrecy, the limits on executive power, and the merits of drone warfare.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tried to calm the debate by stating

“These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise,” Carney said. The government takes “great care” when deciding where and whom to strike, he added.

Yet both public and political pressure on the White House has only increased, forcing the administration to announce it will give Congress its memos backing drone warfare. 

Since this debate is now bound to continue, it’s worth keeping in mind — especially in light of Carney’s comment that the strikes are both legal and ethical — that the question of whether drone strikes are legal is entirely separate from the question of whether they are ethical. As Kevin Jon Heller wrote last month:

I still want to resist an idea that seems to underly all of the responses to my post: namely, that we cannot (or at least should not) consider collateral deaths caused by drone strikes to be immoral as long as those strikes were legal.  I strongly disagree with that idea; I think it is possible — indeed important — to insist that the drone program is profoundly immoral even if no individual drone strike ever violates the laws of war.  There is a vast philosophic literature on the difference between legality and morality, which I do not have time to discuss here. … Suffice it to say that very few people are such thoroughgoing positivists that they believe legality and morality are coterminous, even if they disagree dramatically with each other concerning the particulars of the difference. Two obvious examples: “pro-lifers” don’t consider abortion to be moral even though it is legal, while the pro-euthanasia crowd doesn’t consider assisted suicide to be immoral simply because it is almost always illegal.  Both groups simply reject the morality of the laws in question.

 Let’s hope — or, rather, make sure — this gets due coverage in the coming months. 

You can read about my views on this subject here