The drone wars

Demanding the truth about the drone strike program

On February 8, 2013

John Brennan, the president's pick for new CIA director and his principal adviser on homeland security and counterterrorism over the last four years faced the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday afternoon to answer questions on U.S. drone missions.

Following the controversy of a new memo outlining the Obama administration's policy, Brennan argued the opposition has been reacting to a "misimpression" among the American people and "to a lot of the falsehoods that are out there" about how the program works.

Then let us, at last, hear the truth.

The drone program is shrouded in secrecy. U.S. officials have previously and consistently claimed making details public would possibly pose a threat to national security. Possibly. That doesn't change the fact the level of secrecy placed on the program is entirely excessive, not giving way to vital information or transparency.

Drone strikes have made it back into the spotlight and have become a key topic in Brennan's hearing after NBC News obtained a 16-page memo this week concluding the U.S. government can order the killing of American citizens they are believed to be part of or associated with al-Qaida. The clarity of the white paper, which was provided to members of the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees in June on the condition it be kept confidential, is debatable.

What it does include is the legal reasoning behind the Obama administration's controversial policies: the use of drone strikes against terrorism suspects abroad, including those aimed at U.S. citizens with indictment, such as the attacks on alleged operatives Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in Sept. 2011. It also includes reasoning on why the strikes don't violate the constitution or additional laws about killing Americans overseas, aren't considered war crimes and don't violate a U.S. executive order banning assassinations.

That seems more like an attempt to save face than anything else. Perhaps the document's ambiguity is a reflection of the program as a whole, with elastic definitions of "an imminent threat" (the memo refers to a "broader concept of imminence," meaning the government does not require the United States to have clear evidence a specific threat will take place in the near future) and a disregard to due process, the rule of law and constitutional rights.

            The logistics of drone killings is hazy, and there is no exact number to how many have actually occurred. Based on news reports, the New America Foundation estimates the United States has carried out 349 strikes in Pakistan and 61 in Yemen.

            But how many have died? New America estimates between about 1,950 and 3,300 in Pakistan and between about 650 and 860 in Yemen since 2004. Other reports, such as a dual study from the law schools of Stanford and NYU, say the strikes have killed more people than the United States has acknowledged and have largely been ineffective.

In Brennan's hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) claimed Awlaki was "not an American citizen for whom anyone in America would have been proud" as justification for the drone strike that killed him.

Are we at the point where we value nationalism over constitutionalism, despite what we may claim any time we feel one of our individual rights is violated? The memo's list of excuses doesn't get rid of the fact that drone warfare, whether or not its pros outweigh the cons, disregards due process and the right to a fair trial.

Still, the program is supported by an overwhelming amount of Americans - 83 percent according to a Feb. 2012 Washington Post-ABC poll. Respondents in that poll were also asked if they supported using drones to target American citizens who are suspected terrorists. About two-thirds approved.

What many have tried to turn into an argument of American realism versus idealism is more of an argument of disclosure. From what we know (which is evidently not a lot), the program has many pros, including more accurate attacks, theoretically less civilian deaths and a decrease in military deaths.

There are also cons, such as the argument drone warfare will have an affect on soldiers' psychology, as soldiers become removed from the humanity of warfare and see the enemy as nothing more than blips on a screen. But we haven't had any real discussion on the cons; instead we're told it's a secret and are left to play guessing games.

If we are reacting on misinformation, Mr. Brennan, it is because we lack the information to transform those falsehoods into facts.



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