DRONE WATCH: Death From Above

By Duane Shank 6-04-2012 | Series:
Drone Watch. Image by Kurt Lightner for Sojourners.
Drone Watch. Image by Kurt Lightner for Sojourners.

Last month, White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan acknowledged in a public speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center that the United States was using armed unmanned drones to kill alleged militants.

Brennan’s acknowledgement was the only “new” news. 

Beginning in earnest under President George W. Bush and dramatically escalating under President Barack Obama, the United States is now using drones in four countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia), and has used them in two others (Iraq and Libya). Going by the names Reaper and Predator, firing missiles named Hellfire, the drones are responsible for thousands of deaths, including hundreds of women and children.

Why drones?

There are three major reasons opponents of the unmanned death planes usually give. First, in fighting against terrorist and insurgent organizations, the United States has adopted a kill — not capture — strategy. With a “kill list” of targets, the attacks aim at known or suspected leaders.

Second, the attacks can be carried out with no danger to American troops. Remotely guided from distant locations, drones are a way of carrying out risk-free military operations. Third, with the attacks increasingly under the control of the CIA rather than the military, they can be conducted with a high degree of secrecy. Whom the drones targeted and killed, and how many civilians may have also been killed, is free of scrutiny.

The United States currently has two major armed drone programs. One is controlled by the military, where the use of drone attacks has been part of the battlefield strategy in Afghanistan. Other than the fact that there is no pilot, drones are essentially the same as other air strikes by fighter jets or helicopter gunships. They follow the same rules of engagement designed to minimize civilian casualties, the results of the strikes are usually investigated, and the press generally notes them. They’re operated by military personnel in Afghanistan, usually based on intelligence from troops in the field.

The other is an officially secret program conducted by the CIA. These drones are controlled remotely by the CIA, primarily from Creech Air Force base in Nevada, with no clear accountability process, and are sometimes based on questionable intelligence. An operation designed to kill specific human targets is easily manipulated — by political payback, for instance, where a politician or warlord sees a way to eliminate one of his opponents.

There is no incentive to avoid civilian casualties, in fact it is considered acceptable to blow up a car with one of the “personality” targets, even if they strike also kills his wife and children in the process.

Now in Pakistan and more recently, in Yemen, the drone strikes are moving to what are called “signature” attacks, not aimed at specific individuals but at what are considered suspicious behavior “signatures” of al-Qaeda activity based on vehicles, facilities, communications equipment and patterns of behavior.

A group of men loading a truck may be considered insurgents getting ready to transport weapons, but may in fact be farmers loading their crops for market. As for civilians, a recent news story revealed that anyone with or in the vicinity of a targeted “insurgents” is considered an accomplice. In other words, all males if military age are considered militants unless posthumous evidence proves otherwise.  

A lengthy report in The New York Times last week , based on interviews with three dozen of President Obama’s current and former advisers, described the process by which the possible targets for strikes are compiled, and the president’s personal decision-making about which of the proposed targets will be hit.

The report describes a ritual by which people’s names are nominated to be killed. A group gathered from the national security agencies meets every week or so to add new names to “an expanding ‘kill list,’ poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre ‘baseball cards’ of an unconventional war.” The list then goes to the White House, where the president must approve each and every name.


“Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counter terrorism operations,” the Times report said. “A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions … the control he exercises also appears to reflect Mr. Obama’s striking self-confidence: he believes, according to several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes."

Obama relies on the Brennan’s guidance and judgment. In his Wilson Center speech, the counter-terrorism adviser argued that drone killings were both legal and ethical, as they met the basic principles of the law of war.

Legally, Brennan said, “As a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defense.” It is far-fetched to argue that attacks carried out today in Pakistan and Yemen are “self-defense” in “response to the 9/11 attacks.”

Ethically, Brennan said he believes drones “conform to the principle of necessity, the requirement 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,” and “the principle of proportionality, the notion that the anticipated collateral damage of an action cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage.”

What Brennan neglected to mention is that, according to classical just-war theory, war may “only be waged as a last resort” after “all non-violent options must be exhausted” and the warfare must have “a reasonable chance of success.”

Each of these elements of just-war theory is lacking in the use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen.

According to the Times report, the extensive reliance on drones has provoked internal opposition in Washington. Some State Department officials have complained that “the criteria used by the CIA for identifying a terrorist ‘signature’ were too lax.” Additionally, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter, “has complained to colleagues that the CIA’s strikes drive American policy there, saying ‘he didn’t realize his main job was to kill people,’ a colleague said.”

Despite all of the recent revelations, or perhaps because of them, the administration is dramatically escalating the number of strikes.  So far this year, there have been 19 strikes resulting in 125 deaths in Pakistan, and 22 strikes resulting in 137 deaths in Yemen.

With Brennan’s speech and the revelations of Obama’s direct involvement, the world media has turned its attention in earnest, it would seem, to the United States’ use of drones, with more news and analysis being reported almost daily.

In the coming days and weeks, God’s Politics’ Drone Watch will bring you that news. 

Duane Shank is Senior Policy Advisor for Sojourners. Follow Duane on Twitter @DShankDC.

Image of a U.S. Predator drone firing a Hellfire missile by Brigadier Lance Mans, Deputy Director, NATO Special Operations Coordination Centre via Wiki Commons. Image of a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone by the U.S. Air Force via Wiki Commons.

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