Overhaul U.S. Drone Policy to Respect Innocent Lives Above All Else

By James Dowell
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This drawing by Nabila Rahman, granddaughter of the woman killed in October 2012, depicts her house with a drone hovering ominously overhead. Image Source.

The White House has described American drone strikes as “exceptionally precise, surgical and targeted,” and President Obama has declared that before drone strikes outside designated warzones proceed, there must be “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed. This depiction of drone policy, however comforting, flies in the face of the reality reported by witnesses in combat zones around the world. In December 2013 near the town of Radda, Yemen, ‘terrorist’ vehicles targeted by a drone were later found to be a wedding convoy. Of the 17 killed that day, only five were connected with Al Qaeda – the rest were civilians, traveling together from the groom’s hometown to the bride’s. In October 2012 in Pakistan, another strike had just one casualty: a midwife, who was killed in front of her two grandchildren while they were picking okra. Horror stories like these are simply too numerous to be tragic mistakes. Rather, they are endemic to US drone policy itself, part of a calculated loss that our government has decided to accept in the name of clamping down on extremism. To grasp this reality, we need only look at the procedures used for drone killings, or at least, the small parts of them the CIA and Pentagon have made public.

One such procedure is known as a “signature strike.” Under such procedures, a valid target doesn’t need to be proven as connected to militancy– they must merely match a “signature” of terrorist activity, which according to former ambassador Cameron Munter is military-speak for any group of suspicious military aged males. The second kind of strike is known as a “targeted killing,” in which a person with a known connection to militancy is identified and fired upon. This is a problem because, when such a high profile target is located, they are rarely traveling alone; a hellfire missile’s 50-65 foot blast radius will kill not just the target and their henchmen, but any innocent bystanders unlucky enough to be around. This isn’t mere speculation: The Guardian reports that targeted strikes on average killed 28 unidentified people for every known militant they targeted. When all of these facts are taken together, a tragic picture emerges: even in strikes considered a success, we have no idea who most of the people we kill are.


Obama’s current drone guidelines don’t actually guarantee civilian safety. Image source.

The memories of those people killed in drone strikes who weren’t known militants, hundreds of whom were children, demand that we address this issue. Groups like the ACLU have sued for more transparency regarding the CIA’s drone targeting process, which would expose “records on how the government picks targets, before-the-fact assessments of potential civilian casualties, and ‘after-action’ investigations into who was actually killed.” This would be a meaningful step. In addition to the ACLU’s plan for transparency, I propose that US drone policy be overhauled so that it also has a basis in legality. Obama’s policy of “near certainty” that civilians won’t be killed is too vague and easy to stretch. Instead, a drone strike should have to meet concrete legal standards for identifying a target as a terrorist affiliate, identifying those currently with them as affiliates as well, and ensuring no civilians are within the kill radius of the ordinance being used. After a strike is carried out, its compliance with these standards should be ruled on by a dedicated legal oversight process. Others have argued that such a process could be modeled after the FISA court, a panel of judges that meets in secret to approve warrants against foreign spies. Ultimately, violating these standards should be a crime, for which involved officials must be accountable.

Subjecting strikes to public and legal scrutiny could protect those living in areas where our drones are active. Given that there aren’t currently public procedures that the CIA must comply with, and that the government doesn’t even have to acknowledge that a strike occurred, it’s no wonder that they don’t feel pressured to adhere to their lofty claims of “precise, surgical and targeted.” When civilians have died in strikes, our government has never been subjected to anything more than an informational hearing where the grievances of survivors were voiced. The presence of clear legal boundaries and the threat of punishment would serve as barriers to carrying out strikes that could kill innocents.

Reforming to protect innocent lives would seem to be unambiguously the right thing to do, but if this proposal were brought to the floor of Congress tomorrow, many would likely line up against it. Among other things, opponents would argue that the militants in question are considered “unlawful combatants,” who don’t even have rights under the Geneva Convention, let alone under American law. This argument is as outdated as it is immoral. The term “combatant,” which allows military commanders to subdue or detain the enemy without legal proceeding, makes sense in a conventional war, where the enemy is an organized, uniformed army on a battlefield. But it fails to sync up with today’s reality, when we’re bombing a village in a country we’re not officially at war with, and it’s hard to distinguish between a terrorist convoy and a group of wedding-goers.

Many would also brush this proposal aside on the basis of military feasibility, arguing that tighter restrictions on drone strikes would give terrorists a leg up against us. This argument is not without substance: some experts believe that drones have been effective in “decapitating” Al Qaeda from its leadership in Afghanistan. Would we be able to carry out fewer strikes against such groups? Definitely. Might dangerous militants get away that otherwise wouldn’t have? Possibly. But if these seem like steep barriers to combating terrorism, consider that in the US, the police need a legal warrant to even search your home, and to kill a citizen, it takes months and years to prove they’re guilty of a capital offense. Is it truly moral to deem the lives of families in places like Pakistan and Yemen as less valuable to us?

Using military force in a way that protects human rights isn’t always the simplest route, but it’s always the right one.  The fact is, the oft-cited conservative adage “freedom ain’t free” applies both ways: our values of liberty and humanity are expensive to uphold, and decisions like these illuminate whether we’re truly committed to them.

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