Drone Assassination

America’s New High-Tech Means of Global Dominance

by Hendrik Van den Berg
UNL Professor of Economics

Even though the U.S. military and the CIA have been using drones for surveillance and bombing for over a decade, the issue of drone assassinations became front-page news this year. In early March of 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was called to testify before Congress about targeting U.S. citizens within our borders with drone strikes. Documentation was acquired by various news media suggesting that not only does the U.S. government claim to have a right to launch drone strikes against foreigners on foreign territory, but President Obama has legal memos that justify using drones to kill Americans in an “extraordinary circumstance.” The precise definition of “extraordinary” was classified information, however.

So far, it is difficult to judge Congress’ concern about drone attacks on Americans. Sen. Rand Paul’s brief filibuster focused some attention on the issue, but his action was also used to promote his otherwise destructive libertarian philosophy of dismantling all government programs. More worrisome was the apparent lack of support Paul had from within either party in the Senate or House. Most politicians largely sat by and did nothing in response to Holder’s outrageous claims that President Obama had the power to assassinate Americans. What Constitution are they reading? Surely not ours.

Perhaps we should be encouraged by the media’s thorough coverage of Holder’s testimony. On the other hand, one is left with the uncomfortable feeling that it took an outrageously extreme idea—namely, that the U.S. government had the right to assassinate Americans without a trial and in complete secrecy—for drone killings to get into the mainstream news cycle. There has been very little scrutiny of drone assassinations of foreigners in foreign countries, even though our drones have killed thousands of people in those nations. Is such aggression against foreigners somehow less objectionable?

Nearly 5,000 Drone Assassinations

The “Columbia Human Rights Clinic” of Columbia Law School assessed the data compiled by three organizations that have been tracking U.S. drone assassinations overseas: the “Bureau of Investigative Journalism,” the “Long War Journal” and the “New America Foundation.” These organizations compile news reports of drone strikes and use the information provided in those articles to make their estimates. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism of London estimates that about 4,700 people have been killed by drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia between 2004 and 2012—including up to 881 civilians and 176 children. We are now operating drones in many African countries, as well as flying then throughout the Middle East for surveillance and murder. Iran has shot down several U.S. drones, suggesting we are flying them there routinely as well. By using published information, this report ends up following the U.S. military practice of classifying as a military target anyone even remotely connected to an insurgency or terrorist organization. In fact, the percentage of ‘civilians’ would be much higher if low-level followers and other assorted non-fighting associates of alleged opposition groups were more appropriately classified. The Columbia group did add information from other sources, specifically civilian death reports that included the actual names of people, and it concluded that there were many more civilian deaths than the three organizations listed above had estimated: it verified up to 155 civilian deaths in Pakistan in 2011 alone.

More thorough are the joint estimates by the “International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic” at Stanford Law School and the “Global Justice Clinic” at the New York University School of Law published last year. This working group conducted investigations in Pakistan that included interviews with 130 victims and witnesses as well as the review of thousands of pages of documentation, death certificates and news reports. Their findings are stunning. Even though the U.S. government does not report civilian deaths, they found ample evidence that U.S. drone strikes routinely kill and injure civilians. Secondly, they largely confirm the reported estimates of civilian deaths by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism mentioned above.

The Broader Consequences of U.S. Drone Assassinations

But the Stanford/NYU investigators also found that the damage from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan extends far beyond the immediate assassinations. The drone attacks are not the ‘surgical withdrawals’ of key foreign terrorist leaders that the U.S. military likes to describe. Rather, the drones were creating a much more complex and long-lasting effect that will shape U.S. relations with other countries and people for generations. In their words:

Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears affect behavior. The U.S. practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies… Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes now struggle to support themselves.

This growing fear and hatred fostered by drones attacks led the New York Times to report that “drones have replaced Guantanamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants.” A 2012 Pew Research Center poll found that 74 percent of Pakistanis see the United States as an enemy; virtually none see us an ally.

Drone murders are eroding the United States’ image around the world. It is rather difficult to preach democracy and rule of law, when we openly violate basic legal principles such as innocent until proven guilty, the right for an accused to confront his/her accusers, and fair trials for the accused. The Stanford/NYU study also argues that blatant U.S. violations of human rights and national sovereignty will open the world to many more such violations by many other countries.

Fundamentally, drone strikes in foreign countries constitute a blatant violation of standard international law. Ben Emmerson, the “United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights,” reported in early March on U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan as follows:

The position of the Government of Pakistan is quite clear. It does not consent to the use of drones by the United States on its territory and it considers this to be a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. As a matter of international law the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan is therefore being conducted without the consent of the elected representatives of the people, or the legitimate Government of the State. It involves the use of force on the territory of another State without its consent and is therefore a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Emmerson’s report also confirms that 330 drone strikes have occurred in Pakistan, killing at least 2,200 persons. U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, responding to a journalist’s question about the report, stated, “We’ve seen this press release. I’m obviously not going to speak about classified information here.” Indeed, it appears we will not be informed about any of these violations of international law by our own government.

How Effective Are Drone Strikes?

Many Americans seem to believe that the effectiveness of drones justifies their use despite their unconstitutionality and international illegality. In September 2012, a CNN news team summarized the drone attacks as having become more precise over the past ten years in that civilian casualties have become a smaller percentage of total deaths. At the same time, the ease with which our remote pilots can eliminate suspected bad guys has caused the number of strikes and total deaths to rise substantially. Writes Scott Shane of the New York Times (“The Moral Case for Drones,” August 14, 2012): “With hundreds of terrorist suspects killed under President Obama and just one taken into custody overseas, some question whether drones have become not a more precise alternative to bombing but a convenient substitute for capture. If so, drones may actually be encouraging unnecessary killing.”

Henry A. Crumpton, former deputy chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center recalls in his memoir, The Art of Intelligence, “We never said, ‘Let’s build a more humane weapon.’ We said, ‘Let’s be as precise as possible, because that’s our mission—to kill bin Laden and the people right around him.’” In practice, however, only a small number of high-level targets have been killed. According to the Stanford/NYU study mentioned above, of the thousands of people killed by U.S. drones, only 49 militant leaders have been killed between 2004 and 2012. That is, less than two percent of all killings have involved people that could legitimately be considered leaders. The other 98 percent have been assorted local fighters, militia, patriots, followers and, of course, women, children, relatives, friends and other people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thus, even if you are willing to ignore fundamental American constitutional principles and long-standing international law by looking the other way when drones are used to assassinate people who could reasonably be assumed to be threats to the United States, you cannot avoid the fact that our drones are mostly murdering people who are not any immediate threat.

A Defining Moral Issue

Americans must ask themselves whether assassinating 49 suspected terrorists and insurgent leaders is worth the fallout that will inevitably result from the murder of vast numbers of other people who posed no threat to the U.S. Can one really morally argue that the ease of operation of drones over other countries justifies our general terrorism of entire communities and populations? Can we really justify drone assassinations because, well, a full-scale invasion and war would be even worse? Does breeding lasting hatred of the United States constitute a viable foreign policy of a constitutional state such as we claim to be?

For those of us in Nebraska, these questions about our government’s policy of remote assassination have more than moral implications. They have local ones. U.S. Strategic Command outside Omaha plays an integral role in enabling the CIA’s covert campaign of drone assassination. Under its “Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance” mission, StratCom is responsible for overseeing the activities of America’s national security organizations, including the CIA. Under its mission for “Space,” the command is marshalling its satellite network to assist in the intelligence-gathering on potential targets and the actual flying of drone craft. And under its “Global Strike” mission, StratCom is charged with ensuring that perceived threats to America’s global security are eliminated.

Morally, those killings of Pakistani villagers by unseen and unheard drones are striking very close to home here in Nebraska. One of the responsible parties pulling the trigger is in our very midst. And nobody, accordingly, should have more of a stake in seeing these illegal killings stopped than those of us living in StratCom’s shadow.

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