In a recent Yahoo News story we are told about a Senate subcommittee that met to discuss the Administration’s drone policy. President Obama did not send anyone to the meeting to defend his actions in sending drones into foreign countries to “take out” militant leaders of al-Qaeda, which reflects his unwillingness to be forthcoming about those strikes. But at the meeting six presentations on both sides of the complicated issue were summarized by the news article and I have picked four of them and will comment briefly.
General James Cartwright
The retired general, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained that drones are cheap, at an average cost of $4 million to $5 million, compared with a conventional jet fighter, at $150 million. They are also cheap to fly and have advanced optics.
“[They’re] not hard to see why military operations are significantly improved by this technology. Drones offer many advantages over other conventional forces in counterterrorism,” he said.
“Legitimate questions remain about the use, authorities, and oversight of armed drone activities outside an area of declared hostility,” he acknowledged. “While I believe based on my experience all parties involved in this activity have acted in the best interests of the country, as with other new technologies, adaptation of policy and law tends to lag implementation of the capability.”
Al-Muslimi, a Yemeni activist who was partly educated in the United States, told the committee how drone attacks hurt the reputation of the United States in his country.
“Just six days ago, my village was struck by a drone, in an attack that terrified thousands of simple poor farmers. The drone strike and its impact tore my heart much as the tragic bombings in Boston last week tore your hearts and also mine,” he said.
Al-Muslimi said the drone attacks, especially those that killed innocent civilians, made his job as an advocate for America in Yemen “almost impossible.”
“Even when drone strikes target and kill the right people, it is at the expense of creating the many strategic problems I have discussed today,” he added.
Al-Muslimi also believes the United States should compensate the families of civilians killed or injured in the attacks.
A Georgetown professor and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Brooks said the United States needs to address legal and procedural issues.
“I believe that the president and Congress can and should take action to place U.S. targeted killing policy on firmer legal ground,” she said.
“In particular, we need to address the rule of law implications of U.S. targeted killing policy. Every individual detained, targeted, and killed by the U.S. government may well deserve his fate. But when a government claims for itself the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely unnamed individuals, it undermines the rule of law.”
Colonel Martha McSally
Retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally served for 22 years and is familiar with the tactics involved in drone attacks.
McSally said the use of drones can help due process in some ways: “You actually have the lawyers sitting side by side with you” as a drone remains in position, unlike conventional aircraft. “You can wait until the moment you have positive identification and all the criteria have been met,” she said.
“For targeted strikes of fleeting targets in low air defense threat environments, an RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] is the best platform to choose to ensure precision, persistence, flexibility, and minimize civilian casualties,” she said.
McSally also quoted Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula, the first general responsible for overseeing drones, about the advantages of using the aircraft.
“Adversary falsehoods regarding inaccuracy and collateral damage divert attention from the fact that the massive intentional damage, intentional killing of civilians, and intentional violations of international law are being conducted by Al Qaeda and the Taliban–not U.S. ‘drones,” said Deptula, in a passage used by McSally in her remarks.
You will note that the General and the Air Force Colonel carefully avoid the moral questions, insist that this is “counter-terrorism” and attempt to rationalize the policy on the grounds that it is cheaper than sending in manned aircraft and “they did it first.” Al-Muslimi and Brooks deal with the legal and moral issues. I leave it to the reader to determine which side seems to have the weightier argument, but from where I sit — which is admittedly far from the region of conflict — morality always trumps practicality. And I have never bought the notion that two wrongs make a right. As I have mentioned in past blogs, the moral high ground which people like Martin Luther King asked us to seek and hold is beginning to look more and more like a mole-hill.