Assassination by drone

In a previous post on the ethics of Realpolitik I questioned the morality of acceptable “collateral damage” ie civilian deaths.

Given the New Zealand Prime Minister’s long unflinching support for unilateral US action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed that of many previous governments for US intervention, I am curious as to the formula both the US government and our Prime Minister apply to these operations. Is there a golden ratio of innocents to insurgents that is acceptable and if so what is it? Is it 5:1, 10:1 or in the case of a high level target even 50 or 100:1? At what point would the “utility” of removing one person be outweighed by the death inflicted on bystanders?

A new and in-depth article by Tom Junod in Esquire Magazine takes this further and questions the morality of targeting individual people for assassination, either by Special Forces team as per Osama Bin Laden, or more commonly by Aerial Drone attack. He does so in the form of an open letter to President Obama and addresses in particular the assassination of not only American citizen and suspected terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki but also his innocent teenage son and friends in Yemen. He calls Obama the Lethal Presidency. He also suggests that much of the motive is so he doesn’t appear to be a “pussy” on national security. On the use of drones and targeted assassination he has gone well beyond what even the Bush Administration considered allowable.

More than any other president you have made the killing rather than the capture of individuals the option of first resort, and have killed them both from the sky, with drones, and on the ground, with “nighttime” raids not dissimilar to the one that killed Osama bin Laden. You have killed individuals in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and are making provisions to expand the presence of American Special Forces in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In Pakistan and other places where the United States has not committed troops, you are estimated to have killed at least two thousand by drone. You have formalized what is known as “the program,” and at the height of its activity it was reported to be launching drone strikes in Pakistan every three days. Your lethality is expansive in both practice and principle; you are fighting terrorism with a policy of preemptive execution, and claiming not just the legal right to do so but the legal right to do so in secret. The American people, for the most part, have no idea who has been killed, and why; the American people — and for that matter, most of their representatives in Congress — have no idea what crimes those killed in their name are supposed to have committed, and have been told that they are not entitled to know.
Drone strikes are most usually applied against, not identified targets (“personality” strikes) but profiled targets ie groups of men of the right age and exhibiting suspicious behaviour (“signature” strikes). Unfortunately both Iraq and Afghanistan have shown how fallible this type of intelligence is. The Wikileaks helicopter slaughter in Bagdad including Reuters journalists and two children springs to mind. Junod makes the point that even if the targeted people are insurgents/terrorists they are executed without trial and the intelligence/evidence used to make the decision is secret. How does anyone know if its correct? Based on history there is a good chance much of the intelligence is wrong or incomplete, perhaps here say by a local enemy.
Anwar al-Awlaki was never charged with a crime. He was never charged for any of his suspected connections to the 9/11 hijackers. He was never charged with the crime for which he was jailed in Yemen. He was never charged for his e-mails to the Fort Hood murderer. He was never charged for his treason. And yet on the day before Christmas 2009, President Obama approved a Yemeni air strike on an Al Qaeda meeting that was based on CIA intelligence — and that included Anwar al-Awlaki as a target. The strike killed thirty people. But it spared al-Awlaki….
The US invaded Iraq on the pretext of evidence that was fallacious, if not dishonest. The US detained the “worst of the worst” in Guantanamo for years before releasing six hundred of them, uncharged, which amounts to the admission of a terrible mistake. The Lethal Presidency is making decisions to kill based on intelligence from the same sources. These decisions are final, and no one will ever be let go. Six hundred men. What if they had never been detained? What if, under the precepts of the Lethal Presidency, they had simply been killed?
Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone Magazine covers similar issues around the secrecy and absence of transparency and the self righteousness and  of empathy in the CIA and Obama administration for innocent victims and legal niceties. Basically it comes down to “trust me I’m the President.”
For a new generation of young guns, the experience of piloting a drone is not unlike the video games they grew up on. Unlike traditional pilots, who physically fly their payloads to a target, drone operators kill at the touch of a button, without ever leaving their base – a remove that only serves to further desensitize the taking of human life. (The military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is “bug splat,” since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.) As drone pilot Lt. Col. Matt Martin recounts in his book Predator, operating a drone is “almost like playing the computer game Civilization” – something straight out of “a sci-fi novel.” After one mission, in which he navigated a drone to target a technical college being occupied by insurgents in Iraq, Martin felt “electrified” and “adrenalized,” exulting that “we had shot the technical college full of holes, destroying large portions of it and killing only God knew how many people.”

Only later did the reality of what he had done sink in. “I had yet to realize the horror,” Martin recalls.

Both the Pentagon and the CIA like to brag about drone strikes that have successfully taken out enemy combatants in the War on Terror. The RQ-170 Sentinel was deployed in the raid that killed bin Laden, and U.S. officials boast of eliminating two more of Al Qaeda’s top operatives in Pakistan in recent months. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called drones “the only game in town,” and President Obama recently dismissed concerns about civilian casualties, insisting that he is not ordering “a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly.”

But for every “high-value” target killed by drones, there’s a civilian or other innocent victim who has paid the price. The first major success of drones – the 2002 strike that took out the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen – also resulted in the death of a U.S. citizen. More recently, a drone strike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010 targeted the wrong individual – killing a well-known human rights advocate named Zabet Amanullah who actually supported the U.S.-backed government. The U.S. military, it turned out, had tracked the wrong cellphone for months, mistaking Amanullah for a senior Taliban leader. A year earlier, a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, while he was visiting his father-in-law; his wife was vaporized along with him. But the U.S. had already tried four times to assassinate Mehsud with drones, killing dozens of civilians in the failed attempts. One of the missed strikes, according to a human rights group, killed 35 people, including nine civilians, with reports that flying shrapnel killed an eight-year-old boy while he was sleeping. Another blown strike, in June 2009, took out 45 civilians, according to credible press reports.

The problem I have with operations like this is firstly the lack of due process and legal illegitimacy of putting people, especially foreigners on a kill list, without charge and making the evidence (which hindsight often shows to be based on dubious intelligence) subject to national security. They can kill whoever they like without explanation. Their only refrain is “trust us these are bad guys”.

Secondly they are also entering foreign airspace and targeting foreign nationals without the permission of that government. Imagine another country doing that to the US? What if Mexico started assassinating by drone or Special Forces teams those inside the US (perhaps money laundering bank executives) who they believed were contributing to the escalating drug violence in their country? If Cuba was sending drones to Miami to take out anti-Castro groups labeled counter revolutionary terrorists?

Thirdly the high tech and remote nature of the killing further desensitises the operators from what is state sanctioned execution. Killing from the air is impersonal enough without the “pilot” being based in the US and flying from a leather backed office chair. Unfortunately this plus the impossibility of US casualties (absent a friendly fire accident) makes it very seductive as a way to wage not only conventional warfare but also covert warfare and conduct foreign policy. Don’t like that candidate in Central America who has “socialist” leanings? Say he has links to al -Qaeda and he’ll disappear by Hellfire missile before the election.

Fourthly, the “precision” and relative lack of innocent casualties (as opposed to say carpet bombing an area with B52s) is used as a “good” reason for targeting individuals with drones. Fewer civilians killed and no US troops/pilots – got to be good right? Only if you’re not one of the dead or their families. Does it really matter to them whether they died from a Hellfire missile launched from a drone or a bomb from an F16? They were still innocent and they’re still blown to bits. The absence of risk for US servicemen just makes it easier for the US military/CIA to justify an operation in the first place. More politically acceptable to the President without potential US casualties.

Because of the one sided risk in drone operations there has been relatively little opposition to them in the US. It will be interesting to see if that changes as drones become the equipment of choice for enforcement agencies inside the US. The prospect of thousands of surveillance drones of different sizes in the skies above US cities is not a comforting one especially if they start arming them and using them to supplant SWAT teams.

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