(Don’t) Send in the Drones

The Justice Department is releasing to Congress a memo detailing the administration’s legal justification for what we normally call the “drone program.” The real issue is whether or not the Executive Branch has the legal authority to order the killing of a terror suspect, especially if that terror suspect is an American citizen. Whether or not the killing is done via a Predator or Reaper drone, or by Seal Team Six kicking down someone’s door is a side issue.

To kill Americans fighting for an enemy during a time of war is not controversial. German-Americans occasionally wound up fighting for the Wehrmacht during WWII, and some of them never came home. If you wear the uniform of the other side during a hot war, that can happen. For some reason, however, people have a problem with targeting American citizens, who have admittedly made the irrational decision to join al Qaeda, in places that are not currently war zones (i.e. not in Afghanistan), all without the usual safeguards in place to prevent state power from being used arbitrarily.

Normally, before the government can end someone’s life, there is a little thing known as due process. We have evidentiary hearings, a trial followed by a penalty phase, and years of appeals before “We the People” get to stick a needle in a person’s arm. In the War on Terror, someone in the Executive Branch can decide that some person is a terrorist threat to U.S. interests and then dial up an undisclosed location or two. Without the person in question even knowing what has been set in motion, some time later he winds up with a lot of Hellfire missile up the wazoo.

Sadly, I think the existence of these unmanned aircraft, call them drones or UAVs, has seduced the responsible public officials with the siren song of sanitized warfare. The MQ-1 Predator started life as a high-tech eye in the sky, until someone discovered they could carry aloft a small amount of ordinance. As a strike platform, it has a lot of pluses. It flies high and stays up a long time. It doesn’t put a pilot in harm’s way. Its endurance can help it out-wait its quarry, fooling them into thinking it’s safe to make on run for safety. This makes the vehicle very “user-friendly” in political terms. It doesn’t carry the risk of flag-draped coffins returning to Dover AFB and it leaves behind comparatively small (and almost deniable) footprint when it strikes.

In one way, it’s similar to the advent of advanced precision-guided munitions (AKA “smart” bombs) during and after the first Iraq War. These sort of fooled politicians into think of them as “silver bullets” which could be used for targeted strikes, with less risk to American service people and minimal civilian casualties. While that’s true, up to a point, there are some problems with that viewpoint.

The military idea of “minimal” civilian casualties and the politically acceptable number might differ sharply, but politicians grossly misunderstood the real purpose of these bombs. Before the invention of precision-guided bombs, it took dozens of planes dropping tons of “dumb” gravity bombs to guarantee the destruction of a target. With a laser-guided or GPS-guided bomb, there is a high probability that a single plane with a single bomb can destroy the target, meaning that fewer planes, fewer bombers, less fuel can be expended and there is a higher probability the pilot will return with his very expensive plane and very expensive training intact.

That doesn’t change the fact that one is still dropping five-hundred to two-thousand pounds of high explosive into a building. Anyone in a neighboring building is still probably going to have a bad day. We may call it a “surgical strike” but it is still surgery performed with a chain saw.

Using these aircraft in a hot war zone is, again, not controversial. Using them outside the war zone, in country with which we are not engaged in hostilities, against person who are not, by nationality, parties to any conflict, is a problem, especially when the decision-marking process is shrouded in secrecy. I don’t expect the Obama administration to carry out its deliberations live on MSNBC, but I think it’s reasonable to expect that the criteria used to make these decisions should be a matter of public record. The way we are doing it now is like a football game where only one team knows the rules, and not the other team or the referees.

I have no quarrel with the necessity for military secrecy, at least not in the Churchillian “Bodyguard of Lies” sense of the term. We need to keep our military capabilities and plans secret, especially in times of war to gain the necessary advantage over the enemy or to prevent them from gaining the advantage over us. The level of secrecy surrounding the drone program, however, leaves me in doubt that it is this kind of secrecy and not a Nixonian omertà intended to cover the asses of parties uncertain of their legal standing (or certain of their lack of it).

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