Airpower enthusiasts claim that drones, or “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs), offer the possibility of quick, clean, and decisive victory in the war on terror. They are easy to deploy, save pilots’ lives, and avoid American casualties.
Drones qualify as the latest manifestation of our unquestioning faith in technology combined with a false sense of infallible righteousness. Yet the latest flying machines fail to make war less dirty or chaotic, and raise concerns about safety and privacy.
Even those piloting remote aircraft far removed from actual combat zones can experience health hazards. Researchers with the Defense Department conclude that pilots of drone aircraft experience mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan
With respect to policy, use of UAVs abroad has never been debated or voted on by Congress despite their radical departure from how we conduct warfare. Meanwhile, drones, numbering 11,000, constitute a third of all America’s military aircraft.
The use of remotely piloted aircraft originated in the Bush administration. Although drone usage has declined, the 400 strikes since President Obama took office represent eight times the number authorized by President Bush.
The United States conducts counterterrorism through its targeted killing program without charge or trial. Since Obama took office, the C.I.A. and military have killed about 3,000 people in counterterrorism attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, mostly using drones. The hundreds of civilian deaths that accompanied such strikes fuel anti-U.S. outrage and boost extremist recruiting.
UAV strike fatalities include four American citizens killed outside the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama has become the first president to claim legal authority to order an American citizen killed without judicial involvement, real oversight, or public accountability if the individual is suspected of plotting terrorist acts.
The entire targeted killing program operates with little oversight outside the executive branch. While Congress gets briefed on drone strikes, the rules and justifications for the drone program remain secret as do the criteria for making the “kill list.” The executive branch makes the decision, claiming no need to explain the judgment to the courts or the public. The U.S. drone strike policies actually operate free of any meaningful checks imposed by domestic or international political pressure or sustained oversight from other branches of government.
For the first time in history, the U.S. government has proclaimed its legal right to assassinate any person, anywhere in the world, as long as our chief executive believes that person to be a terrorist. This stunning executive overreach violates international law and our own Constitution.
But drone wars and ground wars are not the only national security choices. In the 1980s and 1990s, counterterrorism officials relied on intelligence, diplomacy, and well-resourced police work to apprehend several suspects overseas and try them in the United States.
The targeted killing operations define a new American way of fighting that blurs the lines between soldiers and spies and short circuits the normal mechanisms by which the U.S. goes to war. Drones also lower the threshold for military engagement and may contribute to the evolution of a permanent state of war.
In his May 24 speech on drones, Obama indicated he may curtail strikes and provide more oversight. The executive branch cannot be allowed the authority to kill in secret, far beyond the battlefield, without clear rules, judicial oversight, and public accountability.
We need to have a process governing how targeting decisions are made and incorporating a system of checks and balances with congressional and judicial involvement. We expect the president to abide by his promise of greater transparency and adherence to the rule of law.
Ralph Scharnau teaches U. S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.