- - Monday, April 28, 2014

The Almighty answers to no one in exercising the power of life and death over His creatures, and the president of the United States, despite the powerful weapons at his hand, can make no such claim. Barack Obama has some explaining to do for his drone killings of purported terrorists.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled last week that the Obama administration must allow the public to review the internal legal documents that justify the president’s drone killings of those, including American citizens, who are suspected of terrorism. The Justice Department had claimed that White House executive privilege shields its internal records from public scrutiny, but the court said by releasing selected portions of the documents, the administration waived its right to secrecy.

Few Americans mourned the death of New Mexico-born al Qaeda chief Anwar al-Awlaki when a drone missile found him in Yemen in 2011. But three others were also blown to kingdom come in the attack, including al-Awlaki’s teenage son. “Oops” is not an acceptable response when “surgical” strikes result in collateral deaths.

In a rare moment of candor, Mr. Obama said last year he was “haunted” by drone attacks that lead to the death of innocents. That admission, plus the orchestrated leaking of a Justice Department legal justification for the strikes, are clear signs of a president on the defensive for standing as judge, jury and executioner.

The lawyerly paper asserted that an attack is legal when “an informed, high-level official … has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack” on the United States, when “capture is infeasible” and the strike is “conducted consistent with applicable law-of-war principles.” This rationale behind Mr. Obama’s kill list left the court unconvinced that he was true to the constitutional limits of his office.

The decision to dispatch enemies of the state shouldn’t be subject to the political calculus that guides every action of the White House. On the day the appellate court ordered the Obama administration to produce its internal drone policy, U.S. forces joined in an attack backed by drone strikes on an al Qaeda base deep in the remote mountains of Yemen.

At least 55 militants were reported killed. Rather than driven by polls, military commanders are true to their oath of enlistment, to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” when pulling a trigger. Not true of the president.

Despite his pledge to run “the most transparent administration in history,” Mr. Obama can’t be expected to willingly comply with the court’s demand for White House secret drone-use documents. In an era when being president means never having to say you’re sorry, Mr. Obama may choose to run out the clock with appeals until his term ends.

If “war is too important to be left to generals,” as Georges Clemenceau said, there’s no less danger in leaving it exclusively to politicians. With his drone killings, Mr. Obama may be “haunted,” but a successor may someday be hunted.