Drones and the Right to Kill

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, the United States has begun routinely employing the use of force against individuals and groups abroad deemed to be terrorist threats. These individuals are generally operating independent of any state, often existing in territories with weak or no central government. As a result, using traditional methods of apprehension is difficult. In addition, were the U.S. to detain the targeted individuals, it would be responsible for treating them humanely according to the Geneva Conventions and at great financial cost. As a result, simply killing them is often easier and less expensive.

American drone attacks are among the most visible examples of the United States’ use of force against non-state actors since 9/11. Drones are actually not new. They first emerged in World War II, on the German side. Israelis put them on the map in the 1982 war in Lebanon, and they were used in the first Gulf War in 1991. It was only post-9/11 that they first began being used regularly by the United States. From Canada to Brazil, at least 11 nations are flying UAVs over the Western Hemisphere. It is not only American allies that have access to drones: Iran hasclaimed to have extracted secret intelligence information from an advanced American drone aircraft that crashed in the country in December. Iran had or would soon reverse-engineer the aircraft, known as the RQ-170 Sentinel, though American intelligence officials and experts have discounted the country’s ability to do so. Iran said in April 2012 that had or would soon reverse-engineer the aircraft, known as the RQ-170 Sentinel, though American intelligence officials and experts have discounted the country’s ability to do so.

Though they have been effective in debilitating Al Qaeda leadership, drone strikes raise a number of disturbing issues. Under the American constitutional system, the President has an extraordinary degree of authority to conduct foreign affairs. He requires congressional approval to declare war, however, which is a major reason presidents are reluctant to do so. As a result, U.S. leaders often wage military action without calling it war, thereby circumventing the need for congressional oversight. Few rules govern the executive branch’s right to kill in situations outside of formally declared wars. Using drones is a way of circumventing Congressional oversight.

The Obama administration has declared that it is virtually unlimited in its legal right to kill “Al Qaeda terrorists and their associates” overseas. The State Department’s top lawyer, Harold H. Koh, has argued that the armed conflict with Al Qaeda is not limited to the battlefield theater of Afghanistan and adjoining parts of Pakistan. To kill people elsewhere, he has said, according to the New York Times, the United States must be able to justify the act as “necessary for its self-defense,” suggesting it should focus only on individuals plotting to attack the United States. The Defense Department’s general counsel, Jeh C. Johnson has argued that the United States could legally widen its targeting. His view is that if a group has aligned itself with Al Qaeda against Americans, the United States can take aim at any of its combatants, especially in a country that is unable or unwilling to suppress them.

Why else should we concerned with drones? Well, for one, their use is shrouded in secrecy. Only in mid-February did we even find out how drones are launched, and the answers are not very comforting. John Rizzo, the CIA’s acting general counsel, told Newsweek that President Obama does not review the list of individuals targeted for killing. Instead, someone inside the CIA signs off. In other words, an unelected, anonymous official inside the American national security bureaucracy, not someone accountable to the public, decides who will be killed by the United States of America.

If that doesn’t alarm you, consider that, according to the Wall Street Journal, most of the CIA’s drone strikes do not even know the individuals they are targeting. Targets are believed to be men associated with terrorist groups–but their individual identities are not always known. “The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed,” the Washington Post reported in April. Securing permission to use these “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.

Now, if we’re only killing terrorists, there’s nothing to worry about, right? Wrong. For one thing, it is only a matter of time before other countries begin to utilize drones as well. Acting as if they can be used without any type of oversight or even laws starts a terrible precedent. How will the US criticize other countries when they too carry out drone attacks?

They are still largely secretive, making them and the individuals who employ them, unaccountable to the general public. With such great power to kill and maim, it is essential that robotic weapons have oversight from other branches of government. At the very least, the government should be releasing information about its use of drones, so that the public may examine and debate their use.

Though they have been around for a long period, only recently have drones become one of the prime weapons of the United States. It is therefore understandable that standards regulating their use have not been developed. But as they become ever more popular, both in the United States and in foreign countries, drones need to be subject to the same scrutiny that every other method of warfare is.