Portland, OR–As I sit down to absorb the immense amount of information on the ethics, policy-making, judicial reasoning, etc. behind the American Drone Strike programs, I will attempt to write a brief column on my initial reactions to what is going on. We discussed this issue in the Contemporary Issues Club last week, and I think it would be really helpful to provide some initial information about US Drone Strike policy, so here is a brief summary that will be useful to understand any reactions/opinions/commentaries on this controversial issue.
- § During the second Bush Administration, the CIA and the DoD began using remote piloted drones, unmanned aerial vehicles tested during the Clinton Administration, that were equipped with either super hi-res cameras, or some variant of a “Hellfire” missile that is capable of taking out a small building.
- § There are two different drone programs. One is run by the CIA and is responsible for the drone strikes that occur in countries with whom we are not officially at war (e.g. Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia), and one is used by the DoD in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
- § Through a process of intelligence gathering, the CIA, coordinating with different agencies builds a file on a potential target that has to be someone within or affiliated with Al-Qaeda. If a drone strike occurs within Pakistan, someone way up, like the secretary of defense, or President Obama himself, must read the information, determine if the potential political/civilian collateral damage is acceptable, then orders the strike. There is no court who determines who goes on what’s known as this ‘kill list.’ It is all done by intelligence gathering, the executive branch, or the military.
- § Drone strikes can and have been ordered on US citizens who have joined Al-Queda’s ranks. Between September and October of 2011, the United States conducted drone strikes in Yemen that killed Anwar, al-Awlaki and his son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (16 years old), and one more individual by the name of Samir Khan.
- § The legal justification of these strikes comes from the AUMF (Authorization of the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists), an act of congress that was passed shortly after 9/11 that essentially gives the President wide-spread powers to do essentially what he (in this case) deems is necessary to defend the United States from Al-Queda and terrorism. (This includes warrantless wiretapping, and holding prisoners indefinitely without due process)
- § Many civil rights groups, including the ACLU, have raised concerns about the lack of transparency or oversight of the drone strike program.
There are plenty of other details I could share, but at this point those bullet points represent the core situation. Drone strike policy has come into light in recent weeks as President Obama’s nominee to lead the CIA, John Brennon, who acted in the capacity of counter terrorism advisor to Obama (and essentially is responsible for ramping up of US drone strikes since Bush left office) has to face questions in his senate confirmation hearing.
At this point, I think it would be naïve to say that more government transparency is absolutely necessary. The general public does not need to know about everything the government is planning. The fact is, these programs are so successful in part because of the secrecy involved. At the same time, when President Obama is acting as prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner, it is important for the public (and the press for that matter) to ask questions of legality and ethics.
We as a nation have a rich history of judicial oversight and checks and balances within our government, and this drone strike program seems to represent a departure from that philosophy. Maybe we have to change in this new era of terrorism. Maybe we should have a court similar to that of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), a court that determines if there is sufficient reason to authorize the warrantless wiretap of a suspected terrorist (in the US or abroad), that independently reviews each request for an addition to the ‘kill list.’ I think it is reasonable for a secret court to act in this capacity when reviewing cases involving US citizens; that way, no President can claim a political activist overseer who, let’s say accidently receives money from the wrong organization, can be put on the kill list to make the political climate easier for the president.
The bottom line is that this is a huge issue for our country at the moment (in a time where there is so much going on), but we must understand that we, as the leaders of the free and civilized world, are in the limelight, and we are setting the precedent that other countries will follow once they obtain this technology in the next decade.