CIA Director and former White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan has stated that drone attacks are legal and ethical through the use of just war principles and respect for International Law; however, these principles are violated by covert drone attacks and signature strikes carried out in places like Pakistan and Yemen.
The following information was taken from an excerpt of a speech on the ethics and legality of drone strikes given by CIA Director and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan (his nomination is the one Rand Paul recently filibustered).
How drone attacks are legal and ethical
Brennan states that as a matter of international law the U.S. is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other associated forces in response to the 9/11 attacks and thus, the U.S. may use force consistent with its inherent right of national self defense. He states, “There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose, or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.” He states that individuals who are part of al-Qaeda or its associated forces are legitimate targets.
According to Brennan drone strikes are ethical because of the principles of the law of war that govern the use of US force. Here they are: the principle of necessity, the principle that the target have definite military value; the principle of distinction, the idea that only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted; principle of proportionality, the notion that the anticipated collateral damages of an action cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage; lastly, the principle of humanity, which requires the US to use weapons that will not inflict unnecessary suffering. He states that the United States of America must remain an example in the conduct of war, since that is what makes us different from those whom we fight. He acknowledges that other nations will go on to possess drone technology and that as we use this technology we are establishing precedents. He states, “We cannot expect of others what we will not do ourselves. President Obama has therefore demanded that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards, that at every step, we be as thorough and deliberate as possible.”
Some advantages of drones
• Drones minimize collateral damage and allow the US to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qaeda terrorist and innocent civilians. There are no US casualties and it lowers the numbers of dead Muslim civilians.
• They are sometimes a wise choice because of treacherous terrain and windows of opportunity can close quickly.
• With the safety and distance there is a clearer picture of the target and its surroundings.
• Strikes keep us from intrusive military deployments that risk us playing into al-Qaeda’s strategy of drawing us into long costly wars that drain us financially, inflame anti-American sentiment and inspire terrorists.
• They are low-cost.
How targets are chosen and the purpose of a strike
Brennan states that counterterrorism professionals propose individuals that warrant lethal action. They then go through careful review and are evaluated by the senior most officials in government for a decision. The individual must be a legitimate target under the law; however, he states that even if a killing is found lawful it does not mean it should be carried out because there are thousands of al-Qaeda members, to go after all of these men with lethal force would not be wise or effective. Strikes are conducted to mitigate ongoing threats, to stop plots, and prevent future attacks and save American lives. The purpose of a strike is to stop a terrorist before carrying out an attack and killing innocents.
Brennan states that it is absolutely preferable to only undertake force when there is a belief that capturing the individual is not feasible. It is the country’s preference to capture. This allows for the gathering of valuable intelligence that we cannot obtain through other means. He asserts that the US does not use force whenever it wants, wherever it wants. The US respects international law and national sovereignty.
Although Brennan asserts that the uses of drones are legal and ethical, the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command use drones secretly in places like Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan; here is where the use of drones becomes problematic—legally and ethically. The information from this point on comes from a report titled “The Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions” (very informative) by the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School and the Center for Civilians in Conflict, unless otherwise specified.
Significant drone strikes target those whose identities are unknown and most are low-level combatants
Substantial drone strikes target groups without knowing any of the identities of the individuals. That poses problems since you know, they could be innocent civilians (fuck it though right?). Their justification is that there must be a high degree of confidence that a particular individual is present. The government says that these signature strikes end up killing militant leaders they didn’t even know were there. These strikes result in the deaths of larger numbers of individuals, which in some cases are civilians. Additionally, although Brennan stated that, ‘We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives when there’s no other alternative,’ and that drones have been ‘used against the real hardcore terrorists,’ most of the individuals killed in drone strikes are low-level combatants.
Conveniently, all men of military age are labeled combatants
All males who are military-age are labeled combatants and are guilty unless posthumously declared innocent by explicit intelligence. This is difficult since bodies are burned, dismembered and mutilated (if it’s a signature strike, how do they know who they killed at all then?). Additionally, because drones are labeled as “precise,” some civilian victims are assumed to be connected to militancy even when they are not (why would they be hit if they’re not militants?). So some people are not only injured, but they are also left with a tarnished reputation that they have the burden of clearing.
The way civilians are treated varies war zone to war zone
For example, some of the tribal areas in Pakistan have fewer boots on the ground than areas like Afghanistan or Iraq, this means that it makes harder for America to be held accountable for their actions, or to compensate those who have been hurt or killed. How can we know how many civilians were killed or which militants if we do not survey the damage after attacks?
The threat of an individual on a kill list must be reviewed if they are not killed within 30 days
The military and CIA have kill lists. A New York Times article titled, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principle and Will”, that is based on interviews with 24 current and former Obama advisers, states that in a weekly video-conference in the Pentagon called “Terror Tuesday” 100 national security officers review PowerPoint slides showing names and biographies of al-Qaeda members to decide whether to recommend them to the kill lists. The process results in a list of 24 whose threat potential must be reviewed again if they are not killed within 30 days. If we’re sure these guys need killing and are imminent threats, but they haven’t done anything in 30 days—what is the definition of imminent and what are the criteria? And if after 30 days we decide they don’t need to be killed, what if we had killed them? It is important to note that President Obama signs off the strikes done in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan; he believes that he should be held morally responsible. He knows that mistakes will ruin America’s image. Nevertheless, as mentioned in the article, Obama is quite comfortable with using force on behalf of the US. Some believe that Obama has avoided the complications of detaining people by just killing them.
Strikes don’t always respect sovereignty
Although Brennan says we respect sovereignty and International Law, we didn’t when Yemen’s government was transitioning in 2011. Also, the UN terrorism and human rights envoy recently found US drone strikes in Pakistan a violation of international law because they were being carried out without the consent of the elected representatives of the people or the legitimate government of the state.
Covert strikes do not follow US policy and norms, as they do not allow for effective investigations into their legal framework
Brennan discusses the four principles that render drones strikes legal and ethical, but when strikes are covert and we do not know the identities of the individuals we target, how do we know they are necessary? How is there any distinction in an attack like that? If they may be innocent, how is a drone attack a proportional attack? And lastly, how is striking unidentified human beings respecting humanity? Additionally, without acknowledging combat in places like Pakistan and Yemen, there are no first responders or boots on the ground to assess damage after a strike. There have been incidents reported of first responders also killed by drone attacks. This has led to bodies being left for hours out of fear of a double attack. There are also reports that the US government has targeted funerals, mosques and schools. If Brennan said our whole point is to stop terrorists from hurting civilians and this is what we’re doing, what is the difference between the terrorists and us? It looks like the only difference is that in some cases we may kill less people. How is this not going to create more terrorists or anti-American sentiment?
Drones are discouraging alternative approaches
Obama Administration officials worry drone strikes are eroding consideration for other strategies against radicalization. Americans and their politicians are quite accepting of drones. Whereas people were incredibly upset with George W. Bush and Cheney for their use of torture, people don’t really seem to be too angry Obama is straight killing people. They seem more trusting of him. Why? It is noted that in some meetings hunting terrorists is exciting for many participants. The other worry as the article points out, is that in the long run this may inhibit policymakers’ commitments to assess and weigh the impacts of drones on civilian populations. It seems many of them have already pre-judged drone attacks as justified. When Osama bin Laden was killed, he declared, ‘justice has been done.’ Some noted that this implied that ‘real justice-arrest, trial, and sentence would have been too difficult in the case of Bin Laden,’ and maybe not even necessary. Politicians increasingly refer to drone strikes as just. Should it be so easy and effortless to kill people? Remember we’re killing innocent people too. Isn’t this dirty work at arm’s length? There is something very unequal about being able to go in covertly and kill people without worrying about anything happening to you. Those in government usually think twice about war because of having to send their own people. Without this, is it going to make going to war easier? If we have nothing to lose will it make it easier for us to kill whenever we feel fearful?
Drone technology is not only changing what we consider the battlefield, it is expanding the scope of individuals the US claims legal authority to target. Notice that Brennan said al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other associated forces in response to the 9/11 attacks are legitimate targets, and that is extremely broad. They don’t specify any countries or boundaries or any kinds of limits. We don’t know what the repercussions will be in the long-run, but currently in both Pakistan and Yemen our relationships have soured, and both countries are less stable.
Drone development has not only surpassed a legal framework, but also personnel capabilities and has outpaced analysis
Improperly instructing personnel on how to use drones risks mistakes in targeting and civilian causalities. Drones capture more data than operators can process and analyze. If operators miss important details because of a flood of information, this could result in targeting civilians. This is the reason 23 civilians were left dead in Afghanistan. They missed reports that children were present. Drone personnel need contextual and cultural understanding in order to properly analyze behavior and to see evidence of innocence. The preciseness of drones not only has to do with technology, but also with the intelligence and cultural understanding of their operators.
Before you think most our intelligence is unfailing let’s discuss Guantanamo and Iraq
Of the 779 people detained in Guantanamo without trial since 2002, 603 have been released. Imagine if drones had just killed them? We would have killed a shocking amount of innocent people. And remember Iraq? Bush, Cheney, Condi and Rumsfeld all swore up and down there were weapons of mass destruction, but then there weren’t (whoops). Our government and our president are fallible; let’s not forget that and follow them blindly.
How are we not terrorists?
How can we value our lives so much and value those of Pakistan and other countries so little? If we are going to use drones without legal and ethical architecture let’s acknowledge then that we don’t give a shit about killing or maiming children, men and women as long as we think it will make us safer. Let’s admit that by trying to pre-empt war we are starting wars ourselves. Let’s admit that for some we are the terrorists. We are imposing on others that which we so desperately don’t want imposed on ourselves. How do we expect people in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan or any other countries we occupy or strike to care for our lives when it is painfully obvious we do not care about theirs? We fail to show any empathy. How could we though when we have no idea what it is to be perpetually occupied or bombed? Our wars are felt elsewhere. The media does us the favor of not showing us the people we kill and maim; of the destruction we leave. How will this not create more terrorism or hatred of America? Should American presidents be able to torture and kill in the name of security whenever they deem it necessary? Should they be able to undermine the principles and values this country stands for in the name of safety? The moments we want to undermine our principles are the moments we need them the most. This is an incredible amount of power we are giving our government, especially our president, and we need to hold them accountable. We desperately need transparency and legal and ethical frameworks. If the point of these drones is our safety, then in the short-term these drones seem like a great idea, but are they in the long-run? Let’s remember that it is not our freedoms that create terrorists—it is our foreign policy.