The Mayor of Seattle, Mike McGinn, has ordered the Police Department to end its drone program. Critics of the program had expressed their opposition at community meetings and public hearings. The comments section of the blog was generally supportive, but there was not much comment about drones in the global context. I had been wanting to write something down since the DOJ memo came out the other day, so here’s my hook.
I also saw a facebook comment that got me thinking. The author asserted that drones had been used to ‘excellent effect’ in Afghanistan to ‘minimize/eliminate civilian casualties’, and that we are ‘very very careful about abiding by international law.’ These statements are debatable – I’ll indicate my thoughts below – but my basic concern about the statement was, again, context and viewpoint.
Whether the effect of drones is ‘excellent’ depends on who you think should die. In any case, their effect in Afghanistan is secondary; the real focus of American drone attacks is Pakistan, with operations increasing in Yemen and Somalia, while the US prepares to pull (Some? All? Who knows?) troops out of Afghanistan.
To really assess the effect of drones, excellent or otherwise, you have to weigh several considerations.
First, of course, is who gets killed. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, we have killed as many as 3,468 people in Pakistan, as many as 893 of which are civilians and 176 are children. The definition of ‘civilian’ excludes any male who happens to be of military age – a Bush-era formulation that Obama has retained.
A second consideration is: does this program comply with international law? In the case of drone attacks, there is good reason to think that it does not. The United Nations has begun investigating the US drone program. The UK will cooperate, since it is also a user of drone strikes, but the US has not said it will do the same. While it is obviously legal to kill people on a battlefield, the US definition – again, originated by Bush and embraced by Obama – seems to be that the whole world is a potential battlefield all the time, and that anyone may be an ‘enemy combatant’. That’s obvious bullshit, but it’s US policy, and there is no sign of policy change on the horizon. We have defined ourselves as a global empire empowered to hit anyone anywhere anytime with War-of-the-Worlds weapons and no protection from law, courts, international organizations, or anyone else.
Third, does this program comply with US law? Here the answer seems ‘obviously not’. The Obama administration just released a memo justifying “lethal operations” against US citizens. There is no judicial due process involved; the President decides whom to kill in total secrecy. The memo claims the target must be a ‘senior operational leader of Al-Qaeda’, but the President can stick that label on anyone he pleases, with no check or balance. Indeed, the memo claims the same assassination rights against members of ‘associated forces’, whatever those are. Needless to say, there is no effort to define the meaning of ‘senior’ as opposed to, say, junior, or ‘operational’ as opposed to some other capacity like logistical, medical or publicity, and there is no evidence that anyone cares. The memo states that the threat must be ‘imminent’ and capture ‘infeasible’, but refuses to define those terms, except to say that ‘imminent’ doesn’t mean clear evidence of an attack in the immediate future.
In fact, the memo displays nothing but contempt for its own standards; if the world is a battlefield, as Bush, Cheney and Obama claim, then the memo’s standards of imminence, seniority and the rest do not apply. The laws of war clearly state that a legitimate target can be targeted at any time. The memo is a feeble effort to add a legal gloss. The authors even make this explicit; they state that their conditions are “sufficient” to justify an assassination, not that they are necessary. It basically leaves the door open to anything the President wants to do, and that’s how you define tyranny. It does not rule out assassinations of US citizens on US soil. So you can get blown up in your bed, if the President decides to do it. You may object; that’s not credible. I reply; that’s not the point. The point is what kind of legal protections are included, and the answer is, obviously, none. This memo is a legal abomination. Nothing could be further from the obvious meaning of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the whole concept of the rule of law. The way the government is going, the borders of credibility will get pushed further and further. I think most of us would have considered it incredible, a short few years ago, that our country would be torturing people and holding them indefinitely without charges.
This memo is the kind of things liberals and Democrats used to get upset about. But that was when the White House was in the hands of Republicans. For more on the DOJ memo, see Glenn Greenwald here.
Fourth, what can we expect from the burgeoning drone industry spawned by this program? We don’t have to think too hard about that one. Drone makers, like any other business, are going to look for markets. Hence the aggressive pressure on Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration (from the White House as well as from industry) to clear the way for drones in US airspace. Time’s cover story last week documented the rush to market drones to police departments, farmers, universities, government departments, and, basically, everyone. Meanwhile, the rush of technology is growing drones’ surveillance capabilities by leaps and bounds. Privacy, already eroded by internet companies like Google and Apple, not to mention the NSA, is getting teed up to take another huge hit.
Fifth, what does this program do to strengthen or undermine the rule of law? The obvious answer is that it undermines it, seriously. America’s position, which amounts to might-makes-right, is setting just the wrong example and leading the world in just the wrong direction. Think about what will happen when lots of other countries, not to mention private operators (including individual citizens), are operating drones. Unlike, say, atom bombs, drones are cheap and easy to make. The technology is not secret and cannot be made secret. According to CNN, seventy countries have drone programs. Without the rule of law, there is nothing to stop other countries from using drones to do assassination strikes in the US, is there? Suppose the Thatcher government, back in the 1980s, had decided to use drone strikes to take out IRA supporters in Boston? Would that be okay? Or perhaps Mexico would like to assassinate drug cartel affiliates in Los Angeles from the air, citing the war on drugs as the relevant war for legal purposes. Or Pakistan, which already manufactures drones and could weaponize them, might decide to run its own assassination program; that could bring a whole new dimension to the kind of military friction we’ve seen where Pakistani and NATO troops exchange fire. And there is no reason to stop at governments. Private military contractors like Blackwater (now Xe) could operate drones in US airspace to collect surveillance or take out targets. Drug cartels, which do not suffer from a shortage of money, are already using ultralights to deliver drugs across the border. Drones are the obvious next step.
If there are no rules except might makes right, does this get us to an okay place? I think most of us would say not. I think, if we consider the outcomes, we would prefer not to stick with might makes right. If we don’t want people using that principle against us, we must admit that it’s not okay for us to do it to other people. Moral principles apply to everyone or to no one, and we can’t have it both ways.
So, drones – excellent or otherwise? I can’t say I think these prospects are excellent. Like a lot of people, I am filled with dismay when I consider them. I am delighted to support organizations like ACLU, which are doing what they can to bring citizen power and awareness to this dangerous trend.