Don’t Drone Me, Bro
Last Thursday, the Senate voted to confirm John O. Brennan, Obama's former counterterrorism adviser, as the director of the CIA by a 63 to 34 vote, despite a lengthy public filibuster by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. This confirmation, along with the recent leak of a white paper detailing a legal framework for drone strikes and Attorney General Eric Holder's admission that it might be acceptable to kill Americans in exigent circumstances, has ignited a public debate on what standards U.S. officials ought to hold themselves to as they wage a covert drone war throughout the world. Proposals to outline a legal framework for the drone program presuppose a basic level of honesty, competency, and care our government has time and time again proven itself incapable of maintaining.
In 2011, Brennan made the claim that U.S. drones had caused “no civilian deaths to date.” At the time that Brennan made this statement, drones had killed at least 500 civilians, with the Obama administration's knowledge of at least several of those deaths well documented.
In 2012, the Obama administration let it be known that each drone strike has to be personally approved by the president after a roundtable discussion of the target’s biography and level of guilt. At this point, the U.S. had already been actively pursuing a strategy of signature strikes, in which groups of nameless individuals are targeted based on “suspicious behavior.” The CIA had been allowed to carry out its own strikes absent the president's involvement.
It is naïve to believe that a few more rules for the administration would be at all effective; the administration has proven more than willing to deceive and mislead the American public about its actions. The drone program has been devastating to the nations it is carried out in and harmful to American interests. Defenses made by top officials signal an execution strategy so covert that it inhibits the basic level of accountability the program desperately needs.
The U.S. drone program has constituted a reign of terror over Waziristan (as well as in Yemen and Somalia). The administration has made use of second strikes, attacks carried out shortly after an initial hit, which kill medical personnel. It has also targeted funerals and other innocuous gatherings The agreements of the Geneva Convention explicitly ban such strikes. The threat of drones has made people unwilling to gather outside, perform their cultural rites such as funerals or weddings, leave their homes to go to school, or even provide medical assistance to the injured. Not only has America killed civilians, but it has also recast life in the areas it targets as a one in constant danger and fear.
These sorts of harms are unacceptable, and they are ones the America government is unwilling to admit exist. In fact, in light of a recent revision of the definition of militant to be more inclusive, the American government no longer even keeps track of the number of civilians it kills. Furthermore, because people in these regions are often illiterate and isolated, and because the Pakistani government does not grant access to outside reporters, it is difficult for us to hold our leaders accountable.
Meanwhile, the drone program has systematically turned the opinion of peoples in these regions against us. Before drone strikes were carried out in their country, Pakistanis generally had a favorable or neutral opinion of the US. According to a Pew study, now 74 percent of them view the US as an enemy and 97 percent of those familiar with the drone program in Pakistan believe it is a bad policy. The idea that Pakistanis are grateful for the intervention is a myth. Moreover, al-Qaeda's structure makes it unlikely these attacks will ever deal crippling damage. America can boast that it has killed al-Qaeda's number two multiple times due to the organization’s decentralized structure; top figures are quickly and easily replaced. Most of the militants killed are foot soldiers, as only two percent of strikes hit targets deemed to be of “high value.” It is unclear how this harms al-Qaeda’s ability to attack America, especially when the primary effect of the drone program seems to be to have caused the group to move elsewhere and resume operations.
The United States has been carrying out a program that devastates innocent lives and harms American interests without admitting to it, choosing instead to actively lie about it for some time. It can no longer be allowed to appeal to an ambiguous and unproven need for secrecy in order to justify escaping unexamined and unchallenged. If it is, abuses will continue and American interests will not be served. Despite the current controversy, the administration has already resumed its drone strikes, killing two "suspected militants" in Pakistan last Sunday. Its next strike may kill militants, children on their way to school, or farmers heading home—we will never know. The Obama administration wants to continue its brutal business as usual. We can’t let it.
William H. Ryan ’14, an editorial writer, is a philosophy concentrator in Quincy House.