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US drone use raises more questions than answers

A discussion about the benefits and failings of the United States’ militarized-drone program is difficult to have, given that it’s shrouded in secrecy and the government refuses to acknowledge almost any involvement.

The University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies undertook the task with a recent panel on the military, legal and human rights implications of drone use for military and targeted killing purposes, though more questions seemed to be asked than answered.

“We felt a very strong compulsion to investigate these when, under the Obama administration, the number of targeted killings really ratcheted up dramatically,” said Laura Pitter, senior national security researcher in Human Rights Watch’s U.S. Program. “In Yemen, specifically, they went from one during the Bush administration to 81 during the Obama administration. And similarly, in Pakistan, they went from 47 during the Bush administration to something like 350 during the Obama administration.”

Even the military advantages of this weapon, perhaps the most clear-cut benefits it offers, are still not black-and-white.

Retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Michael Dobbs, speaking as an individual and not as a military representative, said some of the main pros, aside from the importance of reducing military personnel in the battlefield, include removing the physical limitations of having a human in the cockpit, which allows drones to loiter and hover longer than planes with less concern about crashing and fuel, as well as more accurate bomb-deployment than standard aircraft.

Dobbs explained that if a drone were to drop a Hellfire missile, the premier weapon used with drones, on the pitcher’s mound in Petco Park, everyone within the diamond would either be killed or severely injured, compared with a much wider radius if standard military aircraft and weapons were used.

Even with this smaller nucleus of harm and U.S. government claims that 80 to 90 percent of people killed in drone strikes are the intended targets, Dobbs said such little innocent collateral is unlikely, but difficult to prove one way or the other.

“Some estimates show that as many as five to 10 civilian innocents are killed with each drone strike,” Dobbs said. “Where’s the truth? I don’t know. It’s hard to get facts on the ground in this area. If I were going to guess from what I’ve seen in the literature review, maybe a 2-1 militant-to-innocent-bystanders ratio. Maybe the best is 3-to-1 -- I don’t know.”

Pitter had more disheartening numbers from Human Rights Watch’s report on targeted killings in Yemen, which was chosen because the organization had existing contacts and resources to lean on there. Their work examined six of the 81 strikes carried out during Barack Obama’s presidency, and determined that in those six strikes, a total of 82 people were killed, 57 of whom were civilians.

Two of the strikes were deemed clear violations of international human rights law and the other four were considered possible violations but require further investigation.

One of the clear violations, which used cruise missiles to drop cluster bombs in al-Majala, occurred Dec. 17, 2009.

“In that case, there was an allegation that the target was to be a training camp in this village, and in the strike, 55 people were killed,” Pitter said. “Fourteen of them were considered so-called alleged militants, although, again, we don’t know how the administration was making that determination of who is a militant and who is a noncombatant, and 41 of the individuals killed were civilians. Twenty-one of them were children, nine of them were women and five were pregnant.”

All three speakers made it clear that drones are not an illegal or even new concept, as variations on unmanned aerial vehicles have been used in previous wars in ways compliant with existing codes of conduct; it’s the lack of acknowledgement and the lack of information from the U.S. government about their use that is problematic, they said.

The United States has admitted only to strikes that killed four Americans, though there is conclusive evidence that the government has backed these hundreds of others.

“We recognize that they can be more accurate instruments of war and that they are capable of minimizing civilian harm,” Pitter said. “What we’re saying is that in the strikes that we looked at, there seems to be clear violations of international law in some cases, and the administration needs to do more to show that it actually is in compliance with the international standards.”

What exactly are these international -- and even national -- standards of human rights and warfare?

David Glazier, a professor of law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles and former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, said, like many other aspects of drone use, there aren’t many answers.

“One of the challenges is that the administration has talked bits and pieces of the law involved, but we don’t have a coherent legal explanation, and so all we can really do, honestly, is sort of look at the law and see how it fits with what we see,” Glazier said.

Of the two regimes under which it’s acceptable to use lethal force -- self-defense and armed conflict -- only around the latter can a case even begin to be built for the lawful use of drones in targeted killings, as the distance and remoteness of the people currently targeted don’t make them an imminent threat to life as required under the norms for self-defense.

Under the framework of lethal force in an armed conflict, Glazier said the question then becomes who is a lawful target, which is difficult to answer and doesn’t paint U.S. government actions in a positive light.

The Authorization to Use Military Force, issued by Congress one week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, allowed the use of military force against any group that aided, harbored or sheltered the attackers.

“What’s critically important is that all of the language in the [authorization] is expressed in the past tense as of Sept. 18, 2001,” Glazier said. “In other words, you had to have already been responsible for the Sept. 11 attack or you had to have harbored, aided or sheltered -- all in the past tense. Al-Qaida was the group responsible and the Taliban had harbored and sheltered them, but there’s nothing in the statutory language that provided any room for expanding the conflict to associated forces.”

Glazier and Pitter raised concerns about al-Qaida being organized enough to be considered an armed force as it appears to be a shell of its former self, and noted that it didn’t even exist in the Arabian Peninsula in 2001, where many of these attacks are now being carried out.

Though the option of removing troops from harm’s way, at least physically so -- Dobbs said there is growing evidence that these military drone operators are not immune to the emotional and psychological effects of their task – could be enticing, the cloud of questions surrounding this avenue to do so has not benefited the drone cause.

Glazier said that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, as the National Defense Authorization Act contained draft language that would require the president to submit a comprehensive report to Congress outlining the justification and law behind the practice of targeted killings. If passed, there would be answers to some of these fundamental questions in a few months.

“I think that drones themselves are lawful weapons,” Glazier said. “I think the questions we need to be asking are about the way they are used, and I think that the current U.S. policies are resulting in a very over-broad use of that authority. First of all, I think we need to institute a geographic scope. Secondly, I think we need to be concerned about the groups and individuals within those groups who are targeted, and if we care about our domestic law and our constitution, we ought to be concerned about the fact that the president is unilaterally deciding this, rather than Congress authorizing the scope of the attacks.”

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