The Drone Memos

Targeted Killing, Secrecy, and the Law
Edited by:

The legal memos that enabled the Obama administration’s program of extrajudicial remote assassination, with commentary by one of the lawyers who fought to make the documents public

“A careful study of a secretive counterterrorism infrastructure capable of sustaining endless, orderless war, this book is profoundly necessary.”
—Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher, The Nation

The Drone Memos collects for the first time the legal and policy documents underlying the U.S. government’s deeply controversial practice of “targeted killing”—the extrajudicial killing of suspected terrorists and militants, typically using remotely piloted aircraft or “drones.” The documents—including the Presidential Policy Guidance that provides the framework for drone strikes today, Justice Department white papers addressing the assassination of an American citizen, and a highly classified legal memo that was published only after a landmark legal battle involving the ACLU, the New York Times, and the CIA—together constitute a remarkable effort to legitimize a practice that most human rights experts consider to be unlawful and that the United States has historically condemned.

In a lucid and provocative introduction, Jameel Jaffer, who led the ACLU legal team that secured the release of many of the documents, evaluates the “drone memos” in light of domestic and international law. He connects the documents’ legal abstractions to the real-world violence they allow, and makes the case that we are trading core principles of democracy and human rights for the illusion of security.


“Democracies may be more fragile than we care to admit, existing perhaps one election from tyranny. At a time in history when those words blink red in the mind, this investigation shows the dangers of investing government with the power to kill suspected enemies in secret. Jaffer and his team perform a lasting public service by exposing the ‘targeted killing’ policies, and Jaffer’s introductory essay is a much-needed corrective to the linguistic manipulation and official obfuscation that have made these policies possible.”
—Edward J. Snowden
“The sad fact, as Jaffer notes, is that Democrats who protested when George W. Bush claimed broad war powers were quite willing to help Barack Obama claim even broader ones. The result is that the counterproductive, colossally wasteful, deeply unethical, and endlessly expanding ‘war on terror’ has now become a permanent bipartisan fixture of our foreign policy. Jaffer’s introduction is careful and fair—some might say too fair—but it is a devastating indictment of the irresponsible and short-sighted arguments that the Obama administration made in secret memos and then in open court.”
—Glenn Greenwald
“This important book shows how the Obama administration embraced the legal underpinnings of the ‘global war on terror’—as well as its secrecy, lethality, and lack of meaningful constraint. Jaffer’s astute commentary critiques U.S. drone policy as unlawful and potentially counterproductive. With a new administration soon to take office, the questions he raises are increasingly urgent.”
—Joanne Mariner, senior crisis response adviser, Amnesty International
“Armed drones have given the United States the power to kill individuals anywhere, even far from conventional battlefields, but the United States has failed to articulate clear limits on their use—let alone subscribe to the limits imposed by international law. As Jaffer’s book makes clear, that failure has grave implications as the technology of killer drones inevitably spreads to other countries.”
—Ken Roth, executive director, Human Rights Watch
“Few programs are more controversial than America’s use of killer drones. Whether for or against drones, every citizen should read the previously secret documents contained in this book, and thank the public-spirited lawyers who made them public.”
—Jane Mayer
“An invaluable contribution to the literature on drone strikes. The documents, and Jaffer’s contextualization of them, provide a crucial glimpse into one of the United States government’s most shadowy, problematic and controversial programs.”
—Farea al-Muslimi, chairman, Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies
“This is a compelling exposé of the sophisticated and concerted efforts by Obama Administration officials to thoroughly subvert the international rule of law in the pursuit of minor short-term military gains and at the expense of American credibility.”
—Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, 2004–2010

News and Reviews

PRI's "The World"

PRI's "The World" discusses how Jameel Jaffer's The Drone Memos addresses the Obama administration's drone program and how it normalized targeted killing

The Guardian

Teju Cole lists The Drone Memos as one of the "Best Books of 2016," calling it "a nice counterweight to the hosannas ushering Obama from office"

Goodreads Reviews