Review of Drones & Targeted Killing, edited by Marjorie Cohn

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Drones and Targeted Killing: Legal, Moral, and Geopolitical Issues
(2014 Olive Branch Press, 296 pages)
Edited by Marjorie Cohn

Shining Light Into the Dark World of US Drone Warfare

By Charles Sevilla, Los Angeles Daily Journal, Book Review

This book is a compilation of fifteen authors’ views on U.S. drone killing policy. Drones are automated, pilotless flying machines capable of seeking out and assassinating individuals or groups anywhere. U.S. drone strikes have been ongoing for over a decade and their use has steadily escalated. Approved at the highest levels of government, they are justified as legal and effective measures to defend the homeland. This book questions both premises.

The contributing authors are human rights and political activists, policy wonks, lawyers, legal scholars, a philosopher, a journalist and a sociologist, all of whom examine different aspects of U.S. drone policy. These are well-written, compelling and well-documented essays. Edited by Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor and author, Marjorie Cohn, who writes the first chapter, this is an illuminating insight into the opaque world of drone warfare.

The writers discuss so many issues, it is hard to know where to begin. We start with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who in the Foreword, notes, “Obama’s drones have been killing thousands of people with no due process at all.” He castigates U.S. “exceptionalism” as our justification for killing others with impunity and without legal authority. Exceptionalism is the outlandish, jingoist notion that we are better than everyone else.

I had not confronted the nasty questions about drone killing until I read this book. What follows is my takeaway. One reason many, like myself, have been largely unaware of, or insensitive to, what our drones are doing is that the government keeps as quiet as possible about the process (the proverbial lack of transparency) so that the public is kept mostly unaware. We are left to guess as to exactly how many people have been drone-killed, how many of the dead were listed as the targets of approved strikes, and the numbers of innocents killed in the process. Professor Cohn writes that of the estimated 3,000 killed by drones, the majority were neither al-Qaeda nor Taliban leaders. Most were low-level insurgents rising up against their own governments rather than taking part in an international terrorist plot. A new study published in The Guardian finds that our drone strikes killed 1,147 people in an effort to kill 41 (a ratio of 28/1).

The rest of the dead are deemed “collateral damage,” the euphemism for those people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Two writers, Medea Benjamin and Alice K. Ross, document the civilian casualties of drone strikes. This is not easy given the remote and hostile tribal regions where the bombs drop and because the U.S. isn’t talking. But there are the more horrendous documented cases that can’t be ignored, including a 2009 cruise missile strike in Yemen which hit a tented camp in al-Majala, reportedly killing 58 people including 40 civilians, or the Hellfire missile launched at a tribal town council meeting (a jirga) in western Pakistan which wiped out 42 people including the most respected elders of the community.

One learns of the types of drone targets: individual and “signature” strikes. The latter, a form of mass killing, occurs when the intelligence assessment is that what is being seen by drone video and other asset intelligence is a “suspicious compound in areas controlled by militants.” This leads to drone bombing of the location with the hope that it’s not a wedding party, town meeting or other innocent congregation. We also learn of the” double tap,” where a bomb is dropped and then, after a suitable delay, another is sent to the location to get the rescuers.

All of these deaths raise a paramount question: are we doing more harm than good? Are we diminishing the terrorist threat against us? Or are we increasing it multi-fold by enraging families, friends and communities by this killing from the sky? Do we think these people’s hearts and minds will ever favor the United States after their villages are bombed and loved ones killed? Obviously not. We use them because they are deemed effective in the short run to “degrade” enemy leadership. We use them because we can.

Drone use for targeted killing is without mainstream media questioning or public debate so political blowback to the government is inconsequential. On the other hand, the military/CIA pressure to employ them is irresistible.

One cannot deny that terrorists pose a lethal threat to us. Fewer Americans die with drone use than if we had “boots on the ground” approach to ridding the world of terrorists who threaten us. This, and the abiding fear of another 9/11 attack, support their continued use. But in this, there is no national sacrifice, no moral commitment and no responsibility for what we do. Perpetual drone war can thus be easily employed abroad and accepted or ignored at home.

This book raises serious questions about the efficacy of the program. It surely is a failure if by killing one suspected terrorist, five or ten more spring up in outrage. Then there is the issue of killing U.S. citizens in these presidentially approved attacks. The most notable was the assassination of American citizen Anwar Al-Aulaqi in Yemen, and then three weeks later, his 16-year-old son along with five other children. Only after the government said U.S. citizens could be and would be targeted (as in this case) did the issue of drone assassinations raise the hackles of a few politicians and commentators. But mostly, the issue is not discussed. A lawsuit by an Al-Aulaqi family member was thrown out of court. Drone assassinations, at least for the U.S. public, remain under the radar. The beat goes on.

In addition to questioning the efficacy of drone killings, there is the issue of legality. We are a nation of laws. The idea of the President sitting down with his top adviser to go over an approved kill list with no more boundaries on their deployment than those they themselves make up is disturbing to say the least. Drones are approved for use not only in war theaters of Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in other nations like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and now Syria. We have self-arrogated the authority to drone bomb people to death in any nation on the face of the earth. Compliance with international law and the rules of war appears dubious at best.

Wielding such lethality poses a host of unprecedented legal questions. In May 2013, President Obama made an important speech addressing the legality of his use of drones. A 2010 DOJ white paper leaked in 2013 provided legal rationales for the killing of U.S. citizens like Al-Aulaqi. It is a thoroughly unconvincing document. The national and international legal norms documented here contradict the authority of one country to invade the airspace of another to kill its citizens absent the threat of imminent attack. These laws have not posed any constraint on U.S. drone killing. Might makes right.

The United States published a policy for its lethal drone use in May 2013. These are the U.S. standards for drone killing: a basis for lethal force exists; it involves a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons”; there is a “near certainty” the terrorist target is present where the bomb will be sent and that non-combatants will not be injured or killed; capture is not feasible; the local government authorities will not address the threat; there is no other reasonable alternative; and the U.S. will respect national sovereignty and international law in the process.

The polite response to the above is that the documented accounts of drone killings do not reflect compliance. In fact, as I read these government procedures requiring compliance with U.S. and international law, I was reminded of what Sir Francis Bacon said about great power compliance with law: “laws are like cobwebs, where the small flies are caught and the great break through.” Our policies today are fragile strands incapable of holding back the hydraulic pressures of the CIA and military to erase perceived terrorists with the push of a button.

International legal scholar Richard Falk, who writes that drones are more dangerous that nuclear weapons, says that with the rise of non-state political actors having international agendas (terrorists), the use of drones is too attractive an alternative to ever expect cessation. The best we can hope for are agreed-upon guidelines. That will not happen in the foreseeable future. The United States and a few other Western nations have a monopoly on militarized drones and there is little push to force internationally respected regulation.

President Obama has quoted James Madison who wrote: “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Drones make easier never-ending wars against terrorists. We may now confidently look forward to a Terminator-like future with flying robots battling each other in efforts to drop their lethality upon humanity. What impact this will have on us is anyone’s guess, but I don’t think it will be good.

This is a thought provoking, informative book on an important issue. It is well worth reading, sharing and discussing.