The new face of U.S. warfare is an armed drone. Drones scan the skies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, ready to assassinate those on U.S. government kill lists.
The Obama administration’s expanded use of drones has led FCNL and some members of Congress to question these killings and the lack of accountability and transparency around them and to look closely at what they illustrate about the changing nature of warfare in the 21st century.
A New Kind of Warfare
For much of our country’s history, war has meant direct confrontation between armed groups. Attacking an opponent meant weighing the risks to your own country and people against the potential damage that the attack could inflict. In the past 13 years, the ways in which our country wages war have shifted. The U.S. is now engaged in a seemingly endless war against “terror”– fighting an ideology rather than a particular nation. Technological advances, including drones, allow individuals to be assassinated and communities to be attacked with little direct risk to the attacking nation. These attacks are shrouded in secrecy, insulating the vast majority of people from the violence that is being carried out in their names.
Over the last decade, Congress has ceded much of its oversight of U.S. military conflicts to the administration. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have used the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force as justification for hunting down anyone who can be tied to attacks on the United States. The U.S. is creating a new kind of open-ended campaign, one that follows neither the rules of war nor the rule of law.
Drones, Assassination and the Rule of Law
Armed drones are the tool of choice for this new warfare. These weapons let the U.S. attack in secret, regardless of national borders and without oversight or public debate in the United States. As Jo Becker and Scott Shane of the New York Times reported last year, the targets for these attacks are selected by the administration from what is sometimes referred to as the “secret kill list.” The White House told the New York Times that President Obama reviews the name of each person targeted by a drone, but otherwise this list is not subject to scrutiny.
By targeting people on a secret kill list, the U.S. is essentially engaged in government-sanctioned assassination. When President George W. Bush authorized U.S. intelligence agencies to kill al Qaeda leaders operating anywhere in the world, he reversed a public U.S. position, dating back to the Church Committee’s findings in the 1970s, against targeted assassinations. President Obama has continued to pursue this strategy.
The U.S. is not limited to targeting known al Qaeda operatives. The U.S. engages in so-called “signature strikes” in which the military uses drones to target people who fit a pattern of behavior that suggests involvement in violent activities. A group of men could be killed merely for gathering in a part of Pakistan where people are known to be hostile to the U.S., and the person ordering the strike would not have to know their names.
Drones are a tool that can easily circumvent the rule of law. As law professor and senior State Department advisor Rosa Brooks told the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, “We have the executive branch making a claim that it has the right to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth at any time for secret reasons, based on secret evidence in a secret process undertaken by unidentified officials…[T]hat’s not the rule of law as we know it.”
Two recent reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found that some U.S. drone strikes have killed civilians, sometimes indiscriminately, violating international law. Drone strikes are often justified by their ability to minimize civilian casualties, but evidence is mounting that civilians are killed more often than has been reported. “The U.S. says it is taking all possible precautions during targeted killings, but it has unlawfully killed civilians and struck questionable military targets in Yemen,” said Letta Tayler, a lead researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s long past time for the U.S. to assess the legality of its targeted killings.”
The High Cost of Drone Warfare
Drone violence is a moral and ethical issue as much as a legal one. Coming face to face with someone described as an enemy requires a deliberate choice to override a deep human instinct against killing. Drones override this check on lethal violence, making the decision to kill seem more like a video game than a matter of life and death.
In a May interview with NPR, former drone operator Brendan Bryant described the way that drones made it easier to objectify the people he was targeting. “We had a wall that had five pictures on it of top al Qaeda leaders. [One day] I kind of stopped and looked at one of these guys; and I was like, man, which one of [them] is going to die today? And I stopped myself and I was like, that’s not me… I was taught to respect life; even if, in the realities of war, that we have to take it, it should be done with respect. And I wanted this guy to die.”
Violent conflict is ugly. If we forget that, we lose something that is fundamental to our compassion and humanity. When drones kill for us, with little public awareness or scrutiny, we can more easily avoid thinking about the human life affected by these conflicts and the common humanity we share with those we are targeting.
Moreover, targeted killings will not succeed in ending violence against the United States. Drone killings destroy trust and lead people to respond out of fear. As Yemeni activist Faera Al-Muslimi testified before Congress in April, one drone strike instantly radicalizes people against the United States in ways that al Qaeda propaganda never could. Drone assassinations destabilize national and global security. If one government, no matter how powerful, decides it can kill whomever it wants, where and when it wants, what’s to stop other countries from deciding they can as well?
New Tools, New Responses
The technology of warfare is changing all the time. Drones are just the latest tool to transform the violence that one group can inflict on another. Cavalry, the machine gun and nuclear weapons are just some of the tools that have radically changed warfare in the past—and that have demanded new responses from those opposed to war.
In the United States, it is easy to be unaware of where and how the U.S. is using drones and the consequences of these attacks. A critical step in having a national conversation about drones is transparency and accountability, so that people can better understand what our country is doing and the basis on which decisions are being made.
Congress must also exercise more oversight of drone warfare. As Rep. Keith Ellison (MN) stated, “Drone strikes may well contribute to the extremism and terrorism the United States seeks to deter. It is Congress’s responsibility to exercise oversight and craft policies that govern the use of lethal force.” Other legislators are also asking questions. Sen. Rand Paul (KY) said this year that “there are… long-term consequences, especially when these air strikes kill innocent civilians” that the U.S. should consider.
As important as increased visibility, transparency and accountability are, it is also important to keep focus on alternate solutions to the problems drones are designed to solve. How can the U.S. keep its citizens secure? How should the U.S. address conflicts with other countries?
FCNL believes that focusing on our shared security, as a nation and as a world, holds more promise to addressing these questions than does the development of military tools such as drones. The U.S. must focus on the root causes of conflict to help create conditions to defuse hostilities. As we work to bring more transparency and accountability to the U.S. drones program, we must also work to invest more in preventing violent conflict, promoting restorative justice and helping nations effectively develop their economies. We must examine what is required not just for the illusion of security in the United States but for the real security of people both here and in countries around the world.