VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA –The recently uncovered internal memos discussing the US administration’s policy governing the use of “drones” are deeply unsettling.
The memos and the white paper they discuss are part of an ongoing internal discussion of the use of unmanned drones which can be targeted to strike specific people from a great distance. The US has been using them for over a decade now to seek out and kill strategic targets in both the war in Afghanistan and in the apparently interminable and far more loosely defined “war on terror”. Under Obama’s watch, drones have become the weapon of choice for prosecuting wars and for enforcing US doctrine wherever they are deployed. So fond of drones is the current administration that ten years ago the US military deployed 50 drones. In 2012, it launched 7,500.
Drones, once they have been programmed, can be flown from afar, either by following its internal programming or robotically by a distant ground-based operator (whose training, apparently, consists of hours of video game practice). Drones have been used extensively to take out individuals without the necessity of sending in an assault force or even a SEAL team. Although they are described as surgical in their operation, they are surgical in the way that a leg can be amputated by strapping a stick of dynamite to the affected limb and detonating it.
(It is the indiscriminate destruction and potential collateral damage that made a human strike necessary to take out Osama Bin Laden. In the political climate that exists in the US during Obama’s presidency, a drone strike followed by an announcement that Bin Laden was dead would have been greeted with howls of derision and a flood of accusations of lying by the administration. Let’s not forget that Obama’s opponents invented “birthism”; they are now claiming that photograph of the President shooting skeet at Camp David is doctored; they have even accused the administration of having “faked” the Sandy Hook massacre. Obama needed a corpse. Blood spattered rubble simply wouldn’t do.
That assassination actually was surgical.)
Drones, in contrast to a genuinely surgical strike, take out a great number of civilians – women, children, non-combatants – as collateral damage; they also destroy property
including businesses and vital services. But drones only kill others and only destroy property outside of the continental US. Sending in a drone strike is much simpler and much less expensive than mounting a human military operation. It is so much less costly and less dangerous (to the aggressor, anyway) that drones are now the go-to weapon among US military leaders. They don’t replace a single weapon; they replace an entire task force.
Compare the human and financial cost of mounting the raid on the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan. Once the target was acquired, the raid entailed: the logistics to transport the Seal Team and its backup to the launch point, the risky flight of the team in its helicopters across a sovereign nation, the equipment, the extraction, the ship on the Red Sea and all its personnel. At the kill zone there was the risk to the SEALS themselves and their transport team. Under other circumstances a single drone strike could have accomplished the mission’s objective, with no risk to American lives and at a fraction of the cost.
From a cost management perspective, drones make sense; both in financial terms and in terms of human lives. Human American lives, anyway. A little tough on those on the business end of a drone strike, but no US Marines are getting slaughtered in a full frontal assault, and even Navy Seal’s lives are not being risked. Only foreign strategic targets (and some unfortunate collateral damage) get hurt.
Except that the memos indicate that it is the considered opinion of the administration that the US has the right to deploy those drones against American citizens. Apparently, using Bush era rationalisation for executive authority, this government believes that it is within its rights, “upon reasonable suspicion” of a person posing an “immanent threat” to US interests, to summarily execute him (and anybody standing nearby) by use of a drone. The memos also disclose that “immanent threat” need not refer to an identified specific action against a specific US interest or target, or at a specific time. What “immanent” means, therefore, is hard to say. Indications are that, like when Humpty Dumpty employs a word, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”.
It is disconcerting that in the name of efficiency and cost cutting, it is apparently part of the doctrine that a US citizen can be accused, tried, convicted, sentenced, and executed as part of a military decision. This has been done, for example, when the military targeted two US citizens, a father and his 16 year old son as terrorists. There is little question that the two had joined Al Qaida and were indeed critical components of a developing terrorist plot. The drone took them out and ended that particular immanent threat.
The concern is the denial of due process. Who among us is comfortable with an opaque system
in which unnamed military officers employing a confidential set of criteria can decide to kill a US citizen? Those of us from other countries have even greater cause for concern because the doctrine also allows these strikes to be made in other, non-belligerent, even allied countries, if someone in the Pentagon determines that the target warrants it.
The White House is still scrambling to answer the inevitable questions and has not yet come up with a coherent explication of the doctrine, its legal justification, or any assurances to those of us who are very concerned that this, in contrast to the near continual Republican accusations, is a genuine case of presidential overreach.
Along with gun control, the deficit, the debt, immigration reform, and electoral reform; the ball is in your court, president Obama.