The American public has become so desensitized to what its own government is doing abroad that there is only a ripple of interest when the media reports some new outrage. The assassination of expatriate American citizens by drones preceded detailed media accounts of how kill lists are drawn up by the president himself in the White House. And now there have been press reports of how the Obama administration, in the lead up to the presidential election, sought to establish “explicit rules” for death by drone, thereby institutionalizing the practice as a component of the United States’ “defensive” strategy.
The Obama administration has killed an estimated 2,500 people using CIA and military drones, most of whom were Pakistanis. There is considerable debate over how many of the victims were actually terrorists or insurgents, as the CIA regards any male adult killed as a terrorist unless it can be proved otherwise after the fact, but sources inside Pakistan report a significant civilian kill rate. The rush by the Obamas to codify what has until now been a largely ad hoc practice was reportedly triggered by concern that there might be a new administration in Washington that would benefit from “clear standards and procedures” for killing terrorists with Hellfire missiles fired by Predator drones. The New York Times reports that the White House was seeking to “resolve internal uncertainty and disagreement about exactly when lethal action is justified.” Why? Because advisers are “still debating whether remote control killing should be a measure of last resort against imminent threats to the United States, or a more flexible tool.” Top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who reportedly favors limiting the attacks, argues that the Obama administration is seeking to set “the ethical standard for” targeting by drones.
An ethical standard might prove to be elusive in an environment where body counts, just as in Vietnam, have become the measure of success. The first targeted killing of alleged terrorists by drone took place in 2002. Prior to 9/11, the U.S. considered targeted killings to be illegal. At the heart of the current controversy is the government’s contention both under George W. Bush and Barack Obama that the United States is legally at war with al-Qaeda and that the terrorist group, being stateless, can be attacked anywhere in the world where the local authorities are either unwilling or incapable of taking action themselves. This has sometimes been referred to as a constabulary function, not unlike U.S. marshals going to a foreign country and working with the local authorities to arrest an American fugitive. The difference with the marshals is, of course, that a legal process leading to arrest has both process and transparency, while a kill list drawn up in secret and without any rights for the suspect does not.
But there is general agreement that the drones no longer eliminate many al-Qaeda, the leaders of that group having already been killed or dispersed and gone underground to deal with the threat. Most of the victims currently are described as insurgents or militants, including the Taliban, who have at best a tenuous relationship with al-Qaeda. “Personality” strikes occur when an identified militant is attacked and killed, but most drone operations are directed against “signature” targets, which means anyone who fits a profile and just might be an insurgent. Driving or using a phone in a border region or carrying a weapon (which most men do in the tribal areas) can make one a signature. Most of the world including the United Nations does not accept the legal argument that the U.S. has the right to strike otherwise unidentified suspected adversaries anywhere and at any time based on evidence that Washington alone finds convincing. There is also considerable concern that other nations who have volatile borders might well decide to emulate the United States. Drones are becoming cheaper, and even groups like Hezbollah have begun to use them.
Obama is almost certainly aware that he is committing war crimes in a fashion that even George W Bush might have eschewed, though he undoubtedly would not choose to put it quite that way. In an appearance before the election with Jon Stewart, he justified the drone program while conceding that it was necessary to “put a legal architecture in place” so he could “go after bad folks somewhere on the other side of the world.” The folksy verbal justification for blasting unidentified individuals from a flying robot suggests that the next time around Obama might pull out a cracker barrel and sit around with his national security team for a bit of down-home palaver. His uncharacteristic openness with Stewart about what his administration was up to might have been an attempt to convince suspicious voters that the use of drones was both legal and ethical though subject to some tinkering. In fact, the White House is completely unaccountable on its killing program. It considers the drone operations to be classified, does not even admit to the use of drones outside of the battlefield situation in Afghanistan, and has used the state-secrets privilege to stop any lawsuits challenging the status quo.
Whatever rationales are being presented by the White House, it is known that the strikes are very unpopular on the ground in both Pakistan and Yemen. Civilian casualties in both places are believed to be high relative to the number of actual militants that are killed. In Pakistan in particular, the popular resentment of the drones has produced a weak government and a leading candidate in Imran Khan, who is running for prime minister on a platform of vowing to end the U.S. attacks. Polls in Pakistan reveal that the approval rating for the United States is in single digits.
For me the disturbing thing is that drones have become so much a part of U.S. “defense” as a secret weapon that produces no casualties on the American side while killing people in countries with which Washington is not at war that the White House is now finding it desirable to institutionalize the process. And what will that consist of? I can see a team of 300 lawyers all named Yoo establishing degrees of guilt on a large wall chart. The wall chart will be converted into a PowerPoint so everyone can share in on the fun over at CIA and the Pentagon, and various agencies can compete to see who might come up with the most “bad folks” to eliminate. The meticulous vetting process by a government lawyer might turn out to be like getting points on your driving license for various infractions — once you’re over the limit it will be tough luck. Mohammed will have to be damned careful when he is talking on his cellphone or driving around with his buddies, because when he hits 12 on the numbers table he will be in line for the big sleep.
Oh, by the way, for those who might be concerned about being zapped by a robot, another news story that appeared just after Thanksgiving and disappeared almost immediately confirmed that there will always be a highly trained Air Force officer on the other end of the videogame-like monitor when a Predator drone goes into action. He’s the guy who will press the Hellfire trigger, assuming he doesn’t succumb to carpal tunnel after a grueling eight-hour shift. Nobody will get killed by a flying bot acting on its own initiative, at least not yet. This uncharacteristic restraint is being accomplished through the use of “human-machine interfaces and controls,” just another sign of how your Department of Defense is always thinking of new phrases to explain how it is protecting you. Some recruiting ads on television during football games show U.S. Marines rushing relief supplies up an embattled beachhead while others describe the U.S. Navy as a “global force for good.” It must be true or it wouldn’t be on television. They love us out there.