Members of the Abida tribe point to a drone aircraft flying over Wadi Abida, Yemen on October 13, 2010.

© 2010 Reuters

As leaders from around the world gather this month for the Munich Security Conference, they should think about 10-year-old Dawlah Nasser Saleh of Yemen. Dawlah and her parents were among 12 civilians killed in a botched airstrike on Sept. 2 last year near their village in al-Bayda, a remote Yemeni province. An explosive intended for an alleged al Qaeda member struck the villagers’ van, setting it afire and flinging bodies from the vehicle.

But there were no militants in the van, just farmers and their children. Rescuers found Dawlah’s body clasped in her dead mother’s arms, dusted with flour and sugar that the villagers were bringing home from the market.

Farmers who saw the strike told Human Rights Watch that two aerial drones and two warplanes were flying overhead and that one of the planes carried out the deadly strike. Only the US is known to operate drones in Yemen.

But the only admission of responsibility for the killings came from anonymous US officials, who told The Washington Post that the US military carried out the attack with a drone or fixed-wing aircraft. There has been no public US confirmation, apology or compensation to the families of the dead, including Dawlah’s six orphaned siblings who are too young to care for themselves.

Such secrecy has become a dangerous hallmark of the US targeted killing program, President Barack Obama’s weapon of choice against al Qaeda and its affiliates. In Obama’s first term, the US reportedly carried out as many as 425 airstrikes with drones, warplanes or cruise missiles on militant targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, killing upward of 2,700 people. The US also has ratcheted up drone strikes in Afghanistan and is mulling their use in Mali. The attacks are carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency and special forces within the US military that are almost as secretive, with no effective oversight.

On the face of it, targeted killings are an appealing counterterrorism technique. With correct intelligence, drones in particular can strike with surgical precision, dramatically limiting civilian casualties, and they do not involve the unpopular deployment of US troops.

But US secrecy, combined with the difficulties journalists and independent organizations face in reaching targeted areas, make it almost impossible to determine whether the killings comply with international law, and how many of those killed are actually militants who pose an imminent threat to the US. While insisting that civilian deaths are “exceedingly rare,” US officials refuse to disclose casualty figures or steps they take to minimize civilian harm. Nor will the US detail its criteria for placing suspected militants on its kill lists.

What is clear is that local outrage when attacks go wrong stokes anti-American sentiment that could bring more recruits to groups like al Qaeda.

The Obama administration contends it has authority to conduct targeted killings because the country is at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates and it is exercising its right to self-defense against an imminent threat. International law permits targeted killings of enemy fighters in battle zones and of people posing an imminent risk to life in law enforcement situations. However, the administration has failed to explain how it makes this determination in areas that are far from a traditional battlefield.

The US Congress has shown scant interest in compelling Obama to set the record straight. A Senate intelligence panel is expected to question Obama’s counterterrorism tsar, John Brennan, on targeted killings during hearings Feb. 7 on his nomination to be CIA chief. But it is unlikely to condition Brennan’s confirmation on frank replies. Brennan has said he favors limiting the CIA’s role in targeted killings, but as CIA chief he may be tempted to shroud the program in greater secrecy.

US federal court judges have not ruled on whether the killings exceed presidential authority; when they have ruled, it is to deny public access to information on the program.

The US should reveal its legal rationale for these strikes. Washington should also be pressed to fulfill its international legal obligations to investigate and provide redress for unlawful attacks – and to consider compensation even for lawful collateral damage. In Afghanistan, NATO members including the US have recognized the value of compensating civilians for loss of life or other damage even when attacks are lawful.

Legality and effectiveness are not the only issues. The secrecy surrounding targeted killings creates a dangerous model for abusive governments around the world to take out anyone whom they label a terrorist – including legitimate political opponents – in any location. The next stop could be Paris, London, Tokyo, or even Munich.