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The Rise of the Drones

Original post made by Tom Cushing on Jun 13, 2012

If you had reliable intelligence on the location of an Al Qaeda lieutenant in remote Pakistan, and a Hellfire-equipped drone handy, would you kill him with it? What if he was on the road with a bunch of other people you couldn't identify? At home with his wife and daughters? At services in a mosque? Walking through a crowded market? What if he was an American cleric, or if the intel on his exact role was a little fuzzy?

As warfaring technology has evolved from sticks-and-stones to satellites and drones, the distance between the Commander-in-Chief and those decisions has disappeared. I recall a Guadalcanal vet's statement that after they found the mutilated bodies of fellow GIs, they decided to never again take any prisoners. That kind of field-level policy choice now comes to rest in the White House.

Similarly, as warriors have morph'd from color-coded knights to guerillas or just shadowy fighters unaffiliated with any state, the rules governing the conduct of conflict have to adapt, as well. We are on the cusp of those changes, as America comes to grips with approaches that are both effective and consistent with our values as a People.

The New York Times reported recently on the Obama Administration's process in these situations: the President has put himself personally at the apex of decision-making on the subject, and meets regularly with aides who've compiled "baseball cards" on each potential target. He decides when-or-if the trigger is pulled and hell is unleashed. Occasionally, Mr. Obama has eschewed the remote approach in favor of a personal visitation, as to the bin Laden residence – but the buck stops with him, personally. And while I am personally pretty comfortable with that kind of power in the hands of that individual, proper systems of law and procedure must be independent of person or politics.

Of course, the process starts with the end question: should we do this at all? That inquiry turns on issues of effectiveness, efficiency (alone and in relation to alternatives), collateral consequences, and some value-judgment on whether we as a society are willing to "go there."

As to effectiveness, the numbers are startling: apparently, some 500 Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters have been taken- out, starting at the top and disrupting the organization's decision-making processes. As to efficiency, this has been accomplished with nary even a blister on the part of American troops. And while the technology is not inexpensive, its cost is trivial compared with the blood-and-treasure necessary to invade a country and maintain a ground war.

Arguments have been made that the collateral consequences of drone-strikes render them unattractive as an option. They've been called the new terrorist recruiting tool, or opposed because inevitable civilian casualties make them unacceptable, or because they violate important rules of national sovereignty.

I think the recruiting concern is over-blown: Iraq became a magnet for passionate young Arabs after the 2003 US invasion, but I cannot imagine these relatively isolated incidents having a comparable impact. And war has always been an horrifically, tragically sloppy business for innocents – compared to a Dresden, or Nagasaki, or even My Lai, these strikes are downright surgical. Payloads have even been downsized to reduce the perimeter of destruction. It is true that the casualty counting is deeply flawed – as of now, everyone killed is presumed to have been a non-civilian enemy, unless it can be proved that they weren't. Around here, we generally think that's got it backwards.

So far, the sovereignty issue has not had a good test, as Pakistan has been at least tacitly complicit with the enemy, and Yemen and Somalia barely exist as nation-states. Whether the US would use a drone strike in Germany, the UK or Colombia presents a much more serious concern, as yet unaddressed.

As to the "go there?" argument, is this species of war-making so different that it ought not to be used, like chemical or biological weaponry, or nukes? I would suggest the opposite – drones turn terror on its makers. What could be more perpetually terrifying to a terrorist than the ever-present knowledge that the drones are out there, unseen but watching, and ready to rain down literal hell-fire? It seems to me that they use America's unique competitive advantage in tech to great strategic advantage in today's amorphous fields of battle.

That said, how should their use be governed? Is a Declaration of War necessary – or how else shall we identify sufficiently bad guys – that Kony monster comes to mind – on whom they can be used? Once that crucial decision has been taken, the easy answer in many circumstances is that the Commander-in-Chief decides or delegates to a position within the military command. But how do we properly account for flimsy identification or evidence of guilt, coupled with the seductiveness of familiarity breeding too-much-comfort with the tactic? What if the target is an American, to whom certain Constitutional due-process-of-law guarantees importantly attach? And are we comfortable with other surveillance uses – word is that the EPA is testing them to cheaply monitor pollution in the midwest?

These are the kinds of questions that need to be debated in a free society, and that beg a more sophisticated, fail-safe policy response than "trust me." Like any tool, drone technology itself is values-neutral: it's up to us to determine how it can be deployed to maximize its advantages and limit its downsides.

Drones will only be as good as the human decision-making processes that underlie their use. Those decisions need to be made, consciously, publicly, and well.

Comments (8)

Posted by Sam, a resident of Danville
on Jun 13, 2012 at 1:23 pm

All good questions, Tom. Questions that deserve to be debated in the U.S.

We should also recognize that, regardless of whatever U.S. policy becomes, other countries will drive the increasing use of this technology. For example, Israel has sold drones to dozens of countries over the past ten years, mostly for military purposes. (Web Link). So, to some degree, the genie is already out of the bottle.


Posted by Dirk, a resident of Alamo
on Jun 14, 2012 at 12:00 pm

One moral problem that I have with the collateral killing of innocents in these drone (and other) strikes is that I would NEVER agree that the sudden killing of MY family along with some bad person could ever be justified, no matter how desirable the death of the evildoer might be. Can I approve of doing to others what I would utterly condemn if done to me and mine? That surely violates a very fundamental moral law. But then again ...


Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo
on Jun 15, 2012 at 9:17 am

That symmetry argument about collateral casualties is a good one to preclude wars entirely -- has there ever been a war with no civilian casualties? It's always easier to condone the sacrifice of somebody else's loved ones.

Symmetry has also been used in a more macro argument relating to sovereignty -- as Sam points-out, and as with most innovations, the US' lead in this technology is temporary, and drones could be flying all over within years. So, would we condone the Chinese military taking out a Uighar dissident/"terrorist" on American soil? That ignores the air defense side of the equation, obviously, which probably consigns that Q to the theoretical realm. But what about the Israelis and, say, Iran? It's not just the US that has to come to grips with this stuff -- it's the world at-large.

Spy satellites are another variation on the theme -- albeit they are passive in terms of providing surveillance without accompanying death rays. I believe there's a treaty governing militarization of space -- does anybody have details on such a thing?


Posted by Pedal Power, a resident of Danville
on Jun 15, 2012 at 11:07 am

Great article. Good thoughtful questions that need to be asked. Quite apart from various moral issues is the obvious concern that, when killing one terrorist, you do not create 10 more to take their place.


Posted by Derek, a resident of Danville
on Jun 16, 2012 at 10:38 am

The key is in the first five words of the article, and the very small number of CIA goons "vetting" the targets can in no way be described as reliable. These drones have become every radical's best recruiting tool.
Glen Greenwald has covered this subject thoroughly from the very start, being one of the last American journalists with a shred of integrity.


Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo
on Jun 18, 2012 at 9:31 am

Some cursory googling indicates that Greenwald has written a series of articles on various aspects of droning, in Salon.com. Good stuff.


Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo
on Feb 9, 2013 at 6:43 am

S-P: I've taken the liberty of copying your comment over into the R/C entry on Drones from last summer, as well. I know this issue is of continuing concern to you (too), and maybe its prominence in this week's news will encourage further discussion here. -- TFC

Posted by spcwt, a resident of the Danville neighborhood, 10 hours ago

Remember when President Obama said that "the mistake" of the early years of his presidency was his failure to be a better storyteller?

He said, "The nature of this office is to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times."

How about this for a story: Imagine a country that didn't start wars, didn't torture, didn't detain U.S. citizens indefinitely, without trial, without allowing them to see a lawyer or even loved ones, didn't KILL it's own citizens without trial, didn't kill 176 children with drone strikes.

This was the American fantasy I grew up with. I want to be able to tell my kids it's a true story.

Mr. President, gun violence beings at the top. No more stories. Just please stop killing us.


Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo
on Feb 9, 2013 at 7:16 am

Forum (KQED) had an excellent hour on the legalities of drone weaponry coincident with the release of the DOJ (draft?) memo on the subject, here: Web Link . A copy of the memo is included on their web page.

The NYT also presented six perspectives on the issue of when drone-strikes might be legally used to kill Americans, here: Web Link

In both conversations, Professor O'Connell argues forcefully and well that current international law concepts of war must be stretched past their breaking points to justify current US policy. The response -- that organized terrorism is a new kind of war, and that the law, which almost always trails cultural changes, needs to catch-up -- may satisfy some, but not others.


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