by Marjan Asi (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 1, Rabi' al-Thani, 1434)
Obama has escalated drone warfare not only in other countries but drones are now being increasingly used domestically as well. This was feared by many civil rights activists. Their worst nightmares have come true.
The US’ perpetual war wears a mask. Drones are President Barack Obama’s weapon of choice in his inherited global war on an ever-ominous and continuously expanding “terror.” They are described as efficient, precise and above all, they save the lives of American soldiers (military lingo for “cheaper”), masking the real face of drone warfare. The American public is kept in the dark about the destruction wrought on towns and villages, the anger and hatred this incites toward the US, or that now Americans themselves can be targeted without charge or trial.
Since coming to office in 2009, Obama has outdone his Republican predecessor, carrying out six times as many drone strikes as Bush did in Pakistan alone. His rap sheet includes hundreds of assassination drone strikes resulting in thousands of civilian deaths, several hundred of which have been children — mainly in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. These morbid numbers are expected to climb, probably at a faster pace with the likely confirmation of John Brennan as CIA Director.
Dubbed the “assassination czar” for his leading role in drone strikes, Brennan worked for the CIA for 25 years, leaving the Agency in 2005. Later he joined the Obama administration as chief counterterrorism advisor. Brennan has been in the hot seat for his controversial positions under Bush, namely his support for kidnapping and torture — “rendition” and “interrogation” in official Washington parlance — though he has recently backtracked on his claim that waterboarding prisoners saved lives.
As the architect of drone killings, several rights groups and activists have opposed his nomination. The peace organization CODEPINK staged a protest at his Senate confirmation hearing in February, shouting names of civilians killed by drone strikes and highlighting their illegality.
But Americans with a good grasp of US drone policy, like CODEPINK, are in a minority. Most do not seem aware that the US government can target and kill Americans also without due process, in clear violation of the US Constitution. Those who do, attempt to justify it as a necessity in the name of national security.
The government has not stopped there. In addition to American citizens, the US has also killed minors. Not to mention the hundreds of children killed simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, at least one American teenager has also been killed. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old American citizen, was killed in a drone strike in October 2011, only two weeks after his father, Anwar al-Awlaki, met the same end. This child was both an American citizen and a minor and murdered along with a cousin when a drone strike killed a “suspected” al-Qaeda figure they were with.
Let us also not be fooled by official US spin. According to Obama policy, any military-age male in a strike zone is immediately labeled a militant unless intelligence explicitly states otherwise, in effect turning the popular notion of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head. Obama, however, assures the public of the legality of his death-by-drone program.
In an apparent reference to drones, Obama stated in his annual State of the Union address, “where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.” He further promised the American people: “We must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations.” (One might ask where his ghastly “kill list,” which sets Americans up for assassination, fits into American values!) He also flouted transparency of the process, stating Congress has been kept informed throughout.
But most Americans do not realize that none of this is true, down to the numbers. Several government reports put civilian deaths in the single digits, but do not publicize the policy of guilt by association for any adult males unfortunate enough to be in the assassination zone. Since much of the drone program is classified, Americans have little to go on beyond the government’s word. And while most people appear docile, voices against drone strikes are getting louder.
There are many reasons for this. In addition to the clear constitutional and international legal violations of drone attacks, it is hitting closer to home. Drones are here. In the US, hundreds of drones fly in the skies. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, this number is expected to rise dramatically with an estimated 10,000 drones buzzing over American heads in the next decade. Currently, there are few regulations in place. Just as with using drones abroad, the government is putting a benign spin on the use of drones domestically.
Drones, they argue, are good in busting drug rings, protecting our borders, and even help put out fires. Most recently, the case of the ex-Los Angeles police officer Christopher Dorner, who was accused of killing four in revenge for his allegations of racism and unfair treatment, has been used in support of domestic drones. Drones helped to find Dorner, leading to his grisly demise as he was tracked to a cabin that was then set on fire. Here, authorities and drone proponents say, the drone shines.
But leaving serious questions about Dorner’s case aside, what else might drones do? For one, they completely destroy privacy rights, allowing spying from the skies in addition to the privacy violations through wiretaps, communications breaches and other means that continually erode the private space. As if straight out of an Orwell novel, with drones, the US can track every move of its citizens, inching closer to a police state.
It does not end there. With his drone program, Obama is breaching both international and federal laws. Drones are violating constitutional law in domestic policy. And we can look forward to fully autonomous weapons in the future — that is, killer robots. These killer robots are exactly what they sound like, machines that will select their own targets and whether or not to take them out. That raises a whole host of issues regarding accountability. At least with drones, the president has to approve the assassination strikes, while someone else pushes a button that drops the bomb from the drone. With killer robots, the machine itself calculates the costs and benefits of hitting a target.
Considering its leading role in drone killings, it should come as no surprise that the US is spearheading this technology. Other militaries involved include Germany, Israel, South Korea, Russia, China and the UK. Although several human rights groups are opposing this technology before it can be used, history shows that great powers use human rights as a tool when it suits them. Unless people put immense pressure on their governments, drones will become deadlier, more popular and less accountable for murdering innocents.