Secret Drone War

The global brain Wikipediaciting, defines (for my purposes) a drone thus:

A powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload.

It is an open secret that the Unites States has been using drones in its military adventures for at least half a century, motivated at first by the need for reconnaissance during the Cold War. The program developed and matured for decades, pioneered by Israel in the 70s and 80s, before really coming into its own with the US Predator in the late 90s which were used in Clinton’s attack on Kosovo. Needless to say, the drones have been instrumental in the wars in the middle east. Drones were used for combat purposes even in the first year of the war in Afghanistan, with the CIA first carrying out a targeted killing there in February 2002. That CIA program was greatly expanded under Obama: by the end of his first year in office, the CIA had conducted more drone strikes under Obama than it had during all the Bush years combined.

It is argued that drones are a useful tool that will save the military money and severely limit the exposure of US troops to active battlefields by not requiring their remote operators to be within thousands of miles of them. This is undoubtedly true. Most of the harm in this program comes from its application, which after a brief period of being publicly acknowledged under the Bush administration, has been enshrined in secrecy under Obama. This is painfully ironic, since Obama campaigned on creating and still maintains he leads the most transparent administration ever. It might seem that this problem could be easily solved, since in theory the use of military force is delegated to the President only by authorization of the Congress, which derives its authority from the people who elect it and are kept aware of its activities. Truly, In order to make responsible decisions, the electorate needs to be kept aware of the actions of its government, but an official veil of secrecy prohibits that wherever it is applied. Almost certainly, the drone program has been expanded beyond any reasonable interpretation of its valid, congressionally mandated purposes.

The US miliary’s drones are being employed primarily in ‘The War On Terror,’ and it is this purpose I address presently. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress approved in haste following the 9/11 attacks is the sole legal authorization for the use of drones in fighting terrorism, which some argue is itself unconstitutional. But the wording of that bill is fairly clear:

The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

Currently, the drone war actively exists in at least five Muslim counties: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. That linked Washington Post article mentioned a sixth, Libya, which may or may not still have a drone presence following their NATO-underwritten civil war. The administration tries to tie these targets to Al-Qaeda, the only group blamed for the attacks specified in that AUMF, but it is hard to believe that their influence spreads so pervasively, especially now given the administration’s recent boasts that Al-Qaeda is operationally dead. The New York Times publicly apologized for its role in the runup to the Iraq war, where it reported the alleged link between Al-Qaeda and Iraq that probably didn’t exist.

All that notwithstanding, the fact remains that drones are deployed in the middle east and that the government is hesitant to expose their use. Amazingly, as late as last June, the Obama administration claimed through its chief counter-terrorism officer, John Brennan, that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death” due to the drone program because of its technical awesomeness. Unfortunately for Brennan, the facts appear to contradict: the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British non-profit convened by private grant in 2010 which has already received two awards according to Wikipedia, released a report last July which documents that “at least 10 individual attacks in which 45 or more civilians appear to have died” have occurred since August 2010 in Pakistan alone. The Bureau’s methods for determining the authenticity of casualty reports is exceptionally conservative, so it is likely that their figures represent an undercounting of the actual civilian dead. The fact that dozens of children have been killed in drone attacks makes one wonder how Brennan was able to make his claim with a straight face.

This would be a less potent issue if lots of Big Bad Terrorists were being killed in these raids, but the Brookings Institution asserted civilian-to-militant kill ratios as high as 10:1 for the Pakistani drone program, which suggests drones aren’t as ‘surgical’ as the administration claims. Indeed, Obama just last month claimed that “this thing [the drone program] is kept on a very tight leash” and that it avoids more invasive military action — an interesting thing for an administration which aggressively punishes leakers to say about a program which is officially classified — but the aforementioned evidence suggests that this is merely rhetoric. This fact isn’t so surprising when you recall that a drone is a glorified, weaponized glider being operated by remote control from the other hemisphere from where it is deployed.

Collateral damage considerations aside and as discussed earlier, it seems clear that the drones are not being used lawfully in the first place. Just last year, drones were the cause of death for American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki while in a motorcade (not a battlefield) in Yemen. He wasn’t charged or convicted in a court of any crime, but was executed in seemingly obvious violation of the fifth amendment by his own government nevertheless. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism just released another report earlier this month about how the “CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals.” That’s right, just like what was documented in the video (10:10), probably leaked by Bradley Manning, of an Apache helicopter gunning down a first responder to an aerial attack in Iraq, it has been policy of questionable legality (pdf) to target aid workers and funeral attendees. Such acts can only be considered terrorism.

The conclusion appears to be that drones are being massively abused. Surely they hold a place in foreign policy as all technologies do in balance with their human costs. But their use must be reined in by Constitutional and human rights principles if they are to have any legitimacy. Under Obama, that is not happening. Quite the opposite: their unaccountable and probably illegal use is massively on the rise, and hundreds of innocent men, women, and children are no longer alive as a result.

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