Defense & National Security

The drone wars cometh

The drone wars cometh

Last week’s Senate confirmation hearing for President Obama’s Central Intelligence Agency nominee exposed the administration’s deadly drone – remotely controlled, pilot-less aerial armed vehicle – program which raises ethical red flags. Congress must set boundaries on the president’s program especially now as drone use grows at home.

CIA director nominee John Brennan defended the Obama administration’s counterterrorism drone program, to include killing a treasonous American, in his confirmation hearing saying drone attacks are only carried out “as a last resort, to save lives when there is no other alternative.” Brennan serves as the principal coordinator of Obama’s “kill list” of al Qaeda operatives marked for death by drone strikes.

The Obama administration dramatically expanded drone use in the war on terror, ordering more than 360 strikes, up from 50 during President George Bush’s term.  Those strikes account for thousands of kills and most experts agree they weakened al Qaeda.

That killing efficiency explains in part why the military’s drone fleet is expanding in both numbers – a projected 12 percent annual growth rate through 2018 – and sophistication, such as an unmanned vehicle completely guided by computer.  Currently drones used to attack targets are flown by remote control by pilots on the ground.  A new drone vehicle being developed by the Navy, the X-47B project, looks like a stealth bomber, can operate off an aircraft carrier and is capable of carrying 4,000 pound weapons.

The CIA is also expanding its drone fleet, effectively transforming the agency into a paramilitary force.  Today, 20 percent of the agency’s analysts are “targeters” for drone missions that attack mostly high profile terrorists.

Soon drones will be as common here at home as they are on the battlefield.  The domestic market for drones is expected to double in the next decade for users that include law enforcement agencies, journalists, farmers, utilities and others.

The Federal Aviation Administration predicts 30,000 drones could be flying in the U.S. in less than 20 years for good and foul.  Specifically, drone technology is available on the Internet for all parties including terrorists who seek to harm Americans.

An illustration of the potential dangerous use of drone technology is presented in this video, posted on YouTube.  The man in the video calls himself “Milo Danger,” and he demonstrates an armed drone he built using commercially available equipment.   His drone only shoots paintballs but it could just as easily fire a semi-automatic pistol or deliver an explosive device.

Congress must address the following drone-related challenges.

First, drones are more often than not the weapon of choice against terrorists because they are cheaper and less messy.  The alternatives include deploying special forces troops or employing conventional airstrikes.

Snatching terrorists is risky business for our special forces and messy because once captured, the terrorists must then be detained in places like Guantanamo Bay’s prison.  The upside to capturing terrorists is they can provide significant operational intelligence.  However, the Obama administration prefers killing terrorists rather than capturing them as did the Bush administration, which then used the intelligence to pursue others plotting us harm.

Second, drone strikes mostly kill low-level militants who don’t pose a threat to America while too often killing innocent people who happen to be in the missile’s blast zone. Killing innocents then creates more enemies among the indigenous population.

Numerous reports indicate American drone attacks kill significant numbers of non-terrorist personnel.  For example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that between 2004 and 2012 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan killed between 474 to 881 civilians, including 176 children.

Then there is the matter of drone attacks creating more enemies. General Stanley McChrystal, the retired general who led the Joint Special Operations Command, which has responsibility for the military’s drone strikes, said our drone attacks are “hated on a visceral level” in some places and they contribute to a “perception of American arrogance,” according to The New York Times.

Third, the Obama administration has the authority to conduct the war on terror so it didn’t need to create a convoluted legal process to justify killing treasonous Americans, that is, unless it has an ulterior motive.

Last week NBC News leaked a 16-page Department of Justice white paper outlining the criteria Obama allegedly uses to justify killing American citizens overseas.  The paper was ostensibly written around the time a CIA drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen fighting for al Qaeda in Yemen and thought to be directly involved in a series of plots, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009.

But killing Awlaki didn’t need to be the tortured legal process Obama created with his white paper.  After all, targeting U.S. citizens who are fighting for the enemy is not forbidden by the laws of war and besides Congress’ 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force already granted the government sufficient authority.

But Obama apparently wants to recreate our terrorism war into a domestic police-like action.  That is why the DOJ document outlines criteria to justify killing a treasonous American fighting for al Qaeda yet it fails on several key points.  It fails to provide any context to explain why killing Awlaki with a drone was the government’s only choice.  It does not identify the level of evidence required to qualify someone like Awlaki for a drone attack and it makes no room for judicial review of a strike even though Obama insists al Qaeda terrorists have constitutional rights. So what is the administration’s motive?

Finally, Obama’s drone program makes him an unaccountable judge, jury and executioner of Americans engaged in terrorist operations overseas which begs the question: Where does this stop?  Is this a slippery slope whereby the government might turn drone technology on Americans at home it labels “terrorists”?

That’s an alarming thought but so are past statements made by this government.  A 2009 report by Obama’s Department of Homeland Security said our veterans or anyone that holds a conservative viewpoint should be eyed suspiciously by government as a potential domestic terrorist.  A 2012 DHS report takes the same position warning police to be suspicious of anyone that feels their way of life is endangered, anyone that is religious, and anyone that might be interested in “personal liberty” and/or firearms.

Congress must impose limits on Obama’s drone program as well as the application of that technology here at home especially if it threatens civil liberties.

Specifically, no president should be judge, jury and executioner.  Congress should create a lethal version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to oversee the drone killing program.  FISA courts expeditiously grant warrants for wiretaps that would otherwise be impractically difficult to obtain and the proposed drone court should provide similar oversight and Congress must also provide clear lines of authority and boundaries regarding that program and there must be far less secrecy.

Congress must also set bounds on the use of drone technology for domestic purposes.  The FAA is already working on technical guidelines for drones and Congress must also restrict their use by government to protect our civil liberties while allowing law enforcement to use them to collect evidence relating to criminal acts and to respond to emergencies. Under no circumstance should domestic drones be equipped with weapons.

Drones are valuable when guided by sound policy.  Congress must act to check the potential abuse of that technology both on the battlefield and here at home.

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