On May 29, The New York Times published an extraordinarily in-depth look at the intimate role President Obama has played in authorizing US drone attacks overseas, particularly in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It is chilling to read the cold, macabre ease with which the President and his staff decide who will live or die. The fate of people living thousands of miles away is decided by a group of Americans, elected and unelected, who don’t speak their language, don’t know their culture, don’t understand their motives or values. While purporting to represent the world’s greatest democracy, US leaders are putting people on a hit list who are as young as 17, people who are given no chance to surrender, and certainly no chance to be tried in a court of law.
Who is furnishing the President and his aides with this list of terrorist suspects to choose from, like baseball cards? The kind of intelligence used to put people on drone hit lists is the same kind of intelligence that put people in Guantanamo. Remember how the American public was assured that the prisoners locked up in Guantanamo were the “worst of the worst,” only to find out that hundreds were innocent people who had been sold to the US military by bounty hunters?
Why should the public believe what the Obama administration says about the people being assassinated by drones? Especially since, as we learn in the New York Times, the administration came up with a semantic solution to keep the civilian death toll to a minimum: simply count all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants. The rationale, reminiscent of George Zimmerman’s justification for shooting Trayvon Martin, is that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” Talk about profiling! At least when George Bush threw suspected militants into Guantanamo their lives were spared.
Referring to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the article reveals that for Obama, even ordering an American citizen to be assassinated by drone was “easy.” Not so easy was twisting the Constitution to assert that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantees American citizens due process, this can simply consist of “internal deliberations in the executive branch.” No need for the irksome interference of checks and balances.
Al-Awlaki might have been guilty of defecting to the enemy, but the Constitution requires that even traitors be convicted on the “testimony of two witnesses” or a “confession in open court,” not the say-so of the executive branch.
In addition to hit lists, Obama has granted the CIA the authority to kill with even greater ease using "signature strikes," i.e. strikes based solely on suspicious behavior. The article reports State Department officials complained that the CIA’s criteria for identifying a terrorist “signature” were too lax. “The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.”
Obama’s top legal adviser Harold Koh insists that this killing spree is legal under international law because the US has the inherent right to self-defense. It’s true that all nations possess the right to defend themselves, but the defense must be against an imminent attack that is overwhelming and leaves no moment of deliberation. When a nation is not in an armed conflict, the rules are even stricter. The killing must be necessary to protect life and there must be no other means, such as capture or nonlethal incapacitation, to prevent that threat to life. Outside of an active war zone, then, it is illegal to use weaponized drones, which are weapons of war incapable of taking a suspect alive.
Just think of the precedent the US is setting with its kill-don’t-capture doctrine. Were the US rationale to be applied by other countries, China might declare an ethnic Uighur activist living in New York City as an “enemy combatant” and send a missile into Manhattan; Russia could assert that it was legal to launch a drone attack against someone living in London whom they claim is linked to Chechen militants. Or consider the case of Luis Posada Carrilles, a Cuban-American living in Miami who is a known terrorist convicted of masterminding a 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Given the failure of the US legal system to bring Posada to justice, the Cuban government could claim that it has the right to send a drone into downtown Miami to kill an admitted terrorist and sworn enemy.
Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence, called the drone strike campaign “dangerously seductive” because it was low cost, entailed no casualties and gives the appearance of toughness. “It plays well domestically,” he said, “and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”
But an article in the Washington Post the following day, May 30, entitled “Drone strikes spur backlash in Yemen,” shows that the damage is not just long term but immediate. After interviewing more than 20 tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists and officials from southern Yemen, journalist Sudarsan Raghavan concluded that the escalating U.S. strikes are radicalizing the local population and stirring increasing sympathy for al-Qaeda-linked militants. “The drones are killing al-Qaeda leaders,” said legal coordinator of a local human rights group Mohammed al-Ahmadi, “but they are also turning them into heroes.”
Even the New York Times article acknowledges that Pakistan and Yemen are less stable and more hostile to the United States since Mr. Obama became president, that drones have become a provocative symbol of American power running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents.
One frightening aspect of the Times piece is what it says about the American public. After all, this is an election-time piece about Obama’s leadership style, told from the point of view of mostly Obama insiders bragging about how the president is no shrinking violent when it comes to killing. Implicit is the notion that Americans like tough leaders who don’t agonize over civilian deaths—over there, of course.
Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer suing the CIA on behalf of drone victims, thinks its time for the American people to speak out. “Can you trust a program that has existed for eight years, picks its targets in secret, faces zero accountability and has killed almost 3,000 people in Pakistan alone whose identities are not known to their killers?,” he asks. “When women and children in Waziristan are killed with Hellfire missiles, Pakistanis believe this is what the American people want. I would like to ask Americans, ‘Do you?’”
Medea Benjamin (firstname.lastname@example.org), cofounder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK: Women for Peace, is the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.