By Paul Stephan
A few weeks ago, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky held a 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan’s
appointment as CIA director. He was protesting the United States’ use of drones; unmanned
aircraft that kill suspected militants overseas. It was the longest filibuster in 11 years, and the
Washington crowd got very excited about the whole affair.
Some of Paul’s concerns were, to be frank, a little nutty. He was worried that the United States
would start targeting its own citizens on its own soil without due process, which isn’t in the
cards. But behind the paranoia is a real and very contentious policy issue over this new type of
To give some background: Drones are unmanned aircraft. The United States has been using
them for targeted killing of suspected terrorists, mostly in Pakistan. While drone strikes began
under President Bush, they have been seriously increased under Obama. They are carried out
both by the CIA and the Department of Defense, and President Obama has been known to
personally approve targets.
The debate over drone warfare is in many ways an extension of the debate over the War on
Terror in general. After 9/11, the consensus was that Islamic terrorism was a matter of war, not
a matter of law enforcement, and that’s an extremely important distinction. In law enforcement
suspects must be proven guilty in a court, and they must receive a number of legal protections.
While war is not a free-for-all, those fighting in a war are subject to very little protection, and can
generally be killed on sight.
If we’re in a war, then drone strikes seem quite justifiable. As far as warfare goes, drone attacks
are possibly the most precise and surgical form that we’ve ever developed. They don’t require
large standing armies, invading forces, or heavy machinery. They minimize civilian casualties
and keep American troops out of harm’s way.
That being said, drone strikes may have serious side effects. Innocent civilians are often killed,
usually because they happen to be nearby when the strike occurs. These aircraft hover over
areas for days, causing incredible fear for the people living in communities under their shadow.
It’s hard to imagine a more terrifying form of warfare than a looming aircraft flying above your
neighborhood, striking at some unknown time, at someone you may or may not know and who
may or may not be guilty of anything.
Drones are largely the reason Pakistan hates us possibly more than any other nation on earth.
I worry that this resentment of drone killings are creating new terrorists just as quickly as we’re
killing old ones.
Many officials believe drones, imperfect as they are, are the best option. Part of the problem
is that we find ourselves in a war where easy answers are hard to come by. Our old answer
was counterinsurgency, where we tried to set up stable democracies in the Middle East so that
terrorism wouldn’t have a breeding ground there. That strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq has had
less than ideal results.
In place of any large-scale systemic solution like counterinsurgency, we’ve mostly just shot up
bad guys – ringleaders, incendiary mullahs, anyone that we think might be helping the terrorists.
But the problem with that strategy is that it doesn’t have a clear beginning and end point, like a
regular war does, and it starts to look an awful lot like law enforcement.
If we’re going to have endless target killings (which is what we seem to be on track to do), there
certainly needs to be tramore transparency. Obama didn’t even officially acknowledge that a
drone program existed until last year. Administration officials have released almost nothing
about the program’s legal justification or about what criteria it uses to select targets. In official
numbers, only the targets, not civilians, are included in death counts.
Right now, we know that President Obama personally confirms drone strike targets, and that’s
an incredible amount of decision-making power to give one person. Senator Diane Feinstein
has proposed establishing a drone court that would function similarly to a military tribunal.
This would provide some judicial oversight for the strikes and at least give a semblance of due
process of law.
Members of the Defense community, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, back
up the Feinstein proposal and it’s a smart idea. If we are going to commit to drone strikes, they
should be carried out in an orderly and legal way.
Americans don’t have the appetite for a ground war, and so it seems at this point that drones
may be our only real option. That being said, the system begs for more transparency.
Americans have a reason to be skeptical of what’s going on, and the Obama administration
owes more information to citizens.