War Crimes and Misdemeanors

Drone, Oleg Yarko / Shutterstock.com

HEY PRESIDENT OBAMA: The Nobel Peace Prize committee is calling. They want their medal back.

The coveted award, which many felt was premature, at best, when bestowed during the president’s first year in office, was seriously tarnished in the eyes of many by his escalation of the war in Afghanistan and other military endeavors.

But Obama’s role in waging drone warfare—particularly in Pakistan and Yemen—has made a mockery of the prize that Alfred Nobel said should go to the person “who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations.”

Obama’s drone attacks—according to a May investigation by The New York Times, Daniel Klaidman’s new book Kill or Capture, and other sources—are arguably in direct violation of U.S. and international law, and immoral to boot.

The drone attacks started out with clear rules: Only target those who represent a direct threat to the United States. Those rules soon went out the door—a senior U.S. official called it a “little liberalization that went on in the kill lists,” according to The Washington Post, while a former counterterrorism official said that “the elasticity of that has grown over time.”

This “elastic” interpretation of rules also led to a change of targeting strategy by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, the two agencies that carry out most of the drone attacks. No longer aiming only at specific “high-value individuals”—those considered a real threat to launch terrorist attacks—U.S forces began targeting groups of men who bear certain “signatures” of behavior, even if the identity of those targeted is unknown. According to Klaidman, CIA Director Michael Hayden saw advantages to this “crowd killing” approach: “You could take out a lot more bad guys when you targeted groups instead of individuals, he said.”

The catch is, it’s not always so easy to recognize who the “bad guys” are. According to the Times, all males of what the Pentagon considers “military age” in the strike zone are judged to be “combatants” unless, after they’re killed, there is explicit evidence that proves them innocent. An Obama adviser called this uncomfortable practice “kill ’em and sort it out later,” according to Klaidman. This “presumed guilty” approach means that a group of farmers loading produce into a pickup truck to take to the market might be considered to be engaging in a “pattern of suspicious behavior,” and thus fair game for attack by drone. (Back home, that’s called “profiling.”) And since they’re pre-judged to be combatants, the official count of “civilian” casualties—what the Pentagon calls “collateral damage”—is conveniently low in these group-kill attacks. As Joshua Foust put it in The Atlantic, the problem is not the drones themselves, but the trend of killing first and asking questions later.

This drone warfare takes our country—and Obama, who according to the Times personally approves many drone strikes—far down that moral slippery slope. Are the attacks extrajudicial killings, outside the zone of a declared war, with only secret evidence of the victim’s guilt? There’s a name for such actions: They’re called assassinations, and they aren’t justifiable, morally or legally. Or are the drone attacks part of an undeclared war, “running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents,” as the Times put it, justified by the amorphous and apparently eternal “war on terror”? Either way, it’s wrong.

Klaidman tells the story of Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, who recently watched real-time images of drones hitting their targets, attacks that reportedly resulted in the deaths of dozens of women and children. “If I were Catholic,” Johnson said, “I’d have to go do confession.” Confession of our national sin of militarism, followed by genuine repentance, would be good for the country’s soul as well.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojourners.

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