We’ve been hearing about unmanned aircraft strikes on suspected terrorists in the tribal regions of Pakistan, in Afghanistan and lately in Somalia and Yemen, for years now. So it’s surprising that the U.S. government’s first official acknowledgement that it uses remotely piloted aircraft—drones, if you must—to take down terrorists came just one week ago.
John Brennan, deputy national security advisor for homeland security and counterterrorism, laid out the government’s case for using unmanned aircraft April 30 in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “Yes, in full accordance with the law, and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives, the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones,” Brennan said, according to a transcript. “And I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.”
Critics of the “targeted killings” from above were unconvinced.
“This is an important statement, first because it includes an unambiguous acknowledgement of the targeted killing program and second because it includes the administration’s clearest explanation thus far of the program’s purported legal basis,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU has pressured the Pentagon, federal agencies and the CIA to release records on unmanned aircraft strikes for two years now. “We continue to believe that the administration should release the Justice Department memos underlying the program,” Jaffer added.
Brennan posited that unmanned aircraft strikes against suspected terrorists are legal, ethical and wise. “First, these targeted strikes are legal. As a matter of domestic law, the Constitution empowers the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of attack,” he said, adding that Congress authorized the President “to use all necessary and appropriate forces” against those responsible for the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The strikes are ethical and just, Brennan said, because terrorists are legitimate targets, and because precision strikes by remotely piloted aircraft distinguish between military targets and innocent civilians, minimize collateral damage and prevent unnecessary suffering.
Finally, the use of unmanned aircraft, “with their ability to fly hundreds of miles over the most treacherous terrain, strike their targets with astonishing precision and then return to base,” is a wise application of force, he said. “It’s this surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it, that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential.”
The government is now on record, but questions remain over its use of unmanned aircraft for counterterrorism. There is no escaping the feeling that for better or worse we’ve let the genie irretrievably out of the bottle. Will China, Russia, India, Israel and even Iran, which claims, unconvincingly, to be reverse engineering a captured RQ-170 Sentinel, struggle with the same ethical dilemma?
“President Obama and those of us on his national security team are very mindful that as our nation uses this technology, we are establishing precedents that other nations may follow, and not all of them will be nations that share our interests or the premium we put on protecting human life,” Brennan said.
This is a story to be continued.