Presidents carry an enormous burden when it comes to national security. That weight looms even larger than ever in an age when high-tech gadgetry allows enemies to quickly change shape and attack in myriad ways.

It's understandable, then, that a president would want unfettered power to respond quickly to threats before they develop. In a free and open society, however, that sort of power should never reside unchecked in one branch of government.

A recently disclosed confidential memo sets out the Obama administration's legal case for using drone strikes to kill even U.S. citizens who may be planning attacks on the United States in league with terrorists. The president has agreed to share a larger classified Justice Department document with members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

The document that was made public stretches the word "imminent" to previously unheard-of dimensions, defining someone as posing an imminent threat merely by belonging to al Qaida, the terrorist network that has been the nation's chief adversary in the war on terror.

The administration argues it does not need "to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future" in order to assassinate a person it believes to be a threat, even if that person is a U.S. citizen. A person's "involvement in al Qaida's continuing terrorist campaign against the United States would support the conclusion that the member poses an imminent threat."

In the past, we opposed some provisions of the Patriot Act, passed under the administration of George W. Bush, because it granted overly broad powers to intrude on the privacy of American citizens. But at least in those cases, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 requires authorities to obtain warrants from a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Rules allow authorities to act first, then obtain a warrant within a certain time period afterward, and it is true that the court rarely denies such a request. But authorities at least have to make a reasonable case to the court in order to justify their actions.

It would make sense for the executive branch to have to provide similar justification to a court before ordering drone strikes or other deadly attacks on Americans.

Americans should never be satisfied with rules that require them to simply trust in the virtue of an elected leader, especially where life and death are concerned. That is a recipe that could lead to enormous abuses.

Drone technology should not be allowed to proceed without a clear set of ethical and moral guidelines for its use. The administration ought to consider that any weapon it builds likely will find its way into an enemy's arsenal eventually. The United States has a duty to set the tone for the proper use of this technology, whether or not future belligerents abide by those rules.

Drones are likely to find a use far beyond national security. The Seattle Police Department, for example, decided this week to scrap a plan to use drones to aid in police work, because of public protests. But officials in at least 11 states are contemplating setting rules for how drones can be used for public safety, Fox News reported.

11 comments on this story

We agree the United States should remain as nimble and responsive as possible to threats posed by terrorists and other enemies. But we don't agree that the checks on power so vital to the nation's system of government must be sacrificed to bring this about.

There is significance in the fact that Obama is so closely following the tactics and arguments embraced by the Bush administration, despite Obama's criticisms years ago as a candidate. It underscores how serious terrorism threats are against the United States.

But the Constitution and its Bill of Rights are serious, as well. They must be safeguarded.