Is Obama’s Drone Program Legal? Former Senior CIA Lawyer Isn’t Saying.

A pilot's heads up display in a ground control station shows a truck from the view of a camera on an MQ-9 Reaper aircraft. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

A pilot’s heads up display in a ground control station shows a truck from the view of a camera on an MQ-9 Reaper aircraft. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Memoirs often offer former senior US government officials an outlet to comment on programs about which they largely were silent while in office. When it comes to the legality of the Obama administration’s armed-drone program, such candor is needed. But, in his new memoir, the CIA’s former top lawyer is mostly mum on the topic.

To be sure, the CIA’s former top lawyer, John Rizzo, makes clear in his memoir about his decades of service at America’s top spy agency , “Company Man,” that he believes the use of remotely piloted aircraft to take out American foes likely – due in large part to the Obama administration’s success – will be a permanent part of American war fighting canon.

Rizzo writes “the drone program is here to stay, not just under Obama but whoever his successors may be. … The technology has gotten so good and is bound to get better.”

Even critics acknowledge drones, as Rizzo writes are “a far more preferable option for any presidential administration than ‘boots on the ground’ and flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base.”

Rizzo predicts future commanders in chief will “double down” on Obama’s use of drones, including by directing their top lawyers to “duly rationalize its lethal actions as being totally in accordance with international law.” And when and if that occurs, Rizzo expects his former spy agency to “be in the middle of it without hesitation or resistance.”

Yet, Rizzo includes in his tome no substantive discussion about one of the largest ongoing debates about the program: Is it legal under US and international law?

Given the myriad lingering questions about Obama’s drone program, Rizzo’s book — as it does on many issues — feels like a missed opportunity to at the very least learn how an agency that long prided itself on collecting and analyzing intelligence got into the messy business of killing people.

(Editor’s Note: A version of this piece was posted last month, but did not survive a site upgrade. It has been re-created here.)

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett
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