Illustration by Caetano Santos
Illustration by Caetano Santos.

“My brother, Din Mohammed’s father, arrived at the scene of the strike shortly following the attack. He saw death all around him, and then he found his own son. My brother had to bring his son back home in pieces. That was all that remained of Din Mohammed.”

Drone strikes can seem abstract and far away to Americans numbed by the slow but steady trickle of reports about their use over the past decade. Eighteen suspected terrorists killed here, 37 there — for some it can all blend together after awhile.

As the above account, given by the survivor of an American drone strike in Pakistan to the British human rights group Reprieve, reminds us however, drone strikes are only abstract to those living on the side of the world where the computers that control them are housed. On the other side they are a brutal and visceral fact of life that, in addition to suspected terrorists, leave innocent men, women and children dead in their wake.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that over 300 drone strikes have been carried out thus far, killing a minimum of 2,640 people, over 450 of which were civilians.

The issue of drone warfare has received renewed attention recently after NBC News obtained a copy of a previously classified memo which outlines the Obama administration’s legal justifications for the execution of American citizens suspected of being affiliated with al-Qaida.

The memo “does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future,” according to its own language. It requires only that a suspect has “recently” been involved in threatening “activities.”

NBC News reports that neither “recently” nor “activities” are further defined.

So far, three American citizens have been executed by drone strikes. Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki, both allegedly influential al-Qaida members, were killed in September 2011 without being charged of any crimes. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old son, was killed two weeks later. He had no known links to al-Qaida.

The memo underscores the drone program’s disturbing lack of transparency and oversight, and the far-reaching powers that have been given to the office of the president since the war on terror began. The US’s use of drones sets a dangerous precedent not only for future U.S. presidents, but for the leaders of other countries as well.

The memo was released just days before John Brennan, Obama’s appointee for CIA director, appeared before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for his confirmation hearing. Brennan, who has been Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser for the past four years, withdrew himself from consideration for the post in 2008 amid criticisms of his support for CIA torture techniques and black site prisons.

He is credited with being a “key architect” of the drone program, according to NBC News.

When asked by democratic Sen. Ron Wyden exactly how much evidence the government requires before ordering a strike on an American citizen, and if they would ever do so on American soil, Brennan’s response was as unclear and unsettling as the memo.

“I have been a strong proponent of trying to be as open as possible with these programs as far as explaining what we’re doing,” Brennan said. “What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues but at the same time optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security. I don’t think that it’s one or the other.”

Osama bin Laden has already been executed, without being tried or even charged. American forces are set to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan next year. Last summer, U.S. officials declared that al-Qaida as a whole has been hugely weakened.

It’s time to stop accepting and even accelerating the dangerous shift that’s been in motion since the war on terror began, toward unconventional and unaccountable methods of warfare. The drone program is perhaps the best example of this shift, but it’s still only one of many. It’s time for Obama to stop  and really think about the effects that secretive U.S. counterterrorism programs have on this nation and around the world. These programs must be brought into the light and the Obama administration must establish a transparent, accountable and constitutional framework for using such powerful weapons.

Obama and White House press secretary Jay Carney freely admit that these are issues that demand to be addressed. It’s time for them to stop talking and start acting.

Their failure to do so threatens to haunt us for many years to come.As Carney said last week, “These are questions that will be with us long after he is president and long after the people who are in the seats that they’re in now have left the scene.”