The Daily Banter

It’s Time to End the War or Regulate the Drones

My Wednesday column should generate some discussion, as I attempt to add — gasp! — nuance to the drone debate:

Contrary to what some readers might think, I haven’t categorically supported President Obama’s predator drone program. I haven’t furiously opposed it either because, honestly, I haven’t necessarily believed drones are the dystopian Killbots they’re made out to be by the loudest opponents of the technology. It’s safe to say I’ve been frustratingly ambivalent about drones, which, in case you’re curious, is a great way to be falsely labeled a Drones Superfan. Even though I’m far from it.

And as you might know, I’ve tossed around some strong words about writers and bloggers who curiously prioritize the drone program over everything else, giving it disproportional weight and attention over the lengthy roster of positive administration accomplishments. Those views haven’t changed, and I stand by everything I’ve written.

But I must say, the newly leaked Justice Department “white paper,” revealed exclusively by NBC News’ Michael Isikoff, is pretty disturbing. [continue reading here]

  • mrbrink

    If it gets to the point where you are deemed “a U.S. Citizen who is a Senior Operational Leader of Al Qa’ida or An Associated Force,” and your capture is deemed “infeasible” by the dozens of national security filters and corresponding agencies and ultimately the president of the United States, you made some serious mistakes in your life.

  • bphoon

    I’ve followed this controversy with interest, not only because I’m a retired military pilot but also because I do believe that there are rules of war and that they should be followed. I think Bob’s piece is well reasoned and thoughtful even if I don’t necessarily agree with every point. I’m troubled/curious about a couple of things, however.

    Much has been made of American citizens deserving due process and I certainly agree in principle. However, in the current context and as drones have been used to date, we are acting against what amounts to, in practice, members of an opposing force in what amounts to, in practice, a battlefield environment. Given that, how do we assure fair application of due process? It’s not like we have suspects in custody and can convene a court or tribunal to try them and establish guilt or innocence by accepted judicial practices. Do we try suspects in absentia? An oversight panel that would somehow certify suspects as viable targets might be workable but is that a process that could be sufficiently streamlined in exigent circumstances? Seems to me some of these questions need to be answered–or at least thought about–before coming to too many conclusions.

    Likewise placing restrictions on use of certain technologies. I don’t necessarily disagree that the “War on Terror” should be conducted more as a law enforcement task than a military one, especially now after prosecuting warfare against al Qaeda for more than a decade. I’ve never been in law enforcement but I’ve got to think law enforcement operations overseas in essentially lawless areas (think the Swat Valley or areas of Afghanistan and the Arabian Peninsula) are much different than walking a beat in New York or Detroit though. I agree in principle that no President should have essentially a free hand in determining who’s targeted for extermination; after all, our system of government is one of checks and balances. However, the Constitution names the President the Commander in Chief for a reason so, while his power as such should be checked, it should never be usurped. All I’m saying is that we need to tread carefully in our advocacy.

    I’m torn, I have to say. On the one hand, I believe strongly in due process of law and am quite troubled by the parallels between the memo Isikoff uncovered and the Bybee memo. On the other hand, like several other posters here, I’m not that troubled that people such as al-Awlaki and Khan are no longer with us. I agree strongly that the AUMF hands an essentially blank check to the President and remember quite clearly how it was jammed through Congress in an environment of fear and hysteria. On the other hand, I’m not sure we need to repeal it at the present time; perhaps it could be amended to tighten restrictions on what the President can and can’t do.

    I don’t have answers here, mostly questions. I think, though, these are questions that, as I said above, deserve careful consideration in the current debate.

  • i_a_c

    I have a couple of quibbles with the piece. First of all, when I read about this Justice Department white paper, I didn’t look at this as a permanent policy of using drones against Americans, I look at it as an after-the-fact rationale for targeting the likes of al-Awlaki. The case was so unusual with unusual circumstances that it may well never happen again.

    Secondly, this:

    But a risk-free weapon (price tag aside) must be used sparingly because common sense tells us that the temptation to abuse such a risk-free
    privilege is so great that the lure of its convenience could very easily spiral out of control into the unthinkable.

    I don’t see how the use of a predator drone is much more hands-off than dropping a bomb from the sky or launching a missile from a ship. Pilots fly them remotely, it’s not like they’re Terminators or something. I’m not fond of this slippery slope argument, that since there is no human at the location the weapon is launched that we’re more likely to launch them indiscriminately.

    However, I do agree that Congress should amend the AUMF, or maybe repeal it, or that some kind of plan should be put into place to end or curtail the president’s war power. I believed and continue to believe that the 2001 AUMF is a blank check to the president and that to me is more troubling than the use of a particular weapon.

    • You do make a good point. Jon Stewart had a drone expert on last week and she made a very good case that the drones are not as hands-off as we think, there being a group of people who must all agree that the target is the correct person and that the time and location of the strike will result in the least possible civilian casualties. In traditional bombing runs there is none of that.

      However, that same expert did say that it is easy and cheap to make these drones. That being said, I think the threat would be the sheer number of drones that could be deployed around the world and even here at home. We certainly couldn’t put the physical presence of jet fighters and bombers all over the world like that, but we sure as hell could with drones.

      I totally agree with you about the AUMF being a blank check that has to be curtailed and I think the drones are a symptom of that much larger issue. So we need to address the AUMF and the drones and any other technology/tool that the Executive wants to use will be curtailed as well. We sure don’t want to have to write legislation for every new technology/tool because Congress can’t wipe it’s own arse much less produce laws on a timely basis regarding such things.

      • i_a_c

        I would love for Congress to create an oversight panel, maybe similar to the FISA courts, that looks at our targeted killing program so that the president is not the only one with the final say.

        But as you note, Congress barely functions as it is.

    • There’s a big difference between what an aircraft can do and what a missile/bomb can do. That’s why we’ve always had aircraft (manned or otherwise) and missiles.

      • i_a_c

        This is why I’ve always maintained that drones are the best possible option out of a bunch of bad options. As long as the public broadly supports action against terrorists, I would far prefer that we use the method that poses the least risk to American forces, and the least civilian casualties. Civilian deaths are terrible, and I’ve read some of the horror stories of bad things that have happened because of drones, but most reliable estimates of civilian casualties by drone put the total number in the several hundred range, as opposed to the tens of thousands (some estimates are even larger) of deaths due to our invasion of Iraq. That’s two orders of magnitude fewer deaths by drone. I’m not saying I love it, because I hate it, but the benefits of their use from a raw numbers standpoint are very, very clear.

        That’s not also to say that I’m not troubled by some aspects of the execution of the drone policy, for example, we have the tacit permission of these countries’ governments to fly drones into their territory (most of these countries really want nothing to do with al Qaeda), but they turn around and denounce American actions to the public because it’s politically necessary.

  • chris castle

    Law enforcement is about the best analogy I’ve seen to describe this situation. It will be ongoing, and there needs to be restrictions and oversight.

  • ranger11

    This doesn’t really bother me so much. Guess this makes me a bad liberal. I hope I’m not being influenced by the fact that this is such a Greenwaldian issue. Don’t know….

    • Greenwald hurts his case because he’s gone to the extreme on it and now sounds like a right-winger talking about abortion.

      This is the problem with social media and journalism – when you make a cause your sole focus and talk about it daily, you have to ramp up the rhetoric each day or else people just think, “yeah, you talked about this yesterday, next!” So what starts out as a legitimate issue (which this is) becomes ridiculous.

    • KABoink_after_wingnut_hacker

      I feel the same way. Some folks get their knickers in a twist with regular rants about drones, as if military boots on the ground is a better option.
      I can’t get too worked up about it.
      Couple things:
      1. Having spent time in Europe years ago, it was clear that they treated the threat of terrorism as something to be policed and drones fulfill this role well. The whole idea of “War on Terror” is stupid, because the enemy will never meet you on a battle field.
      2. I call bullshit on the “killing American citizens” histrionics. If anyone is involved in terrorist activities, take them out. And since when is an American life more valuable than anyone elses?

      • “as if military boots on the ground is a better option”

        Exactly. And replacing drones with boots on the ground would result in more lives lost, many of them Americans.

        There are legitimate arguments to be made against drones, but as you said, I just can’t get too worked up about it. We have so many other concerns that affect many more lives than drone policy does.

      • Yes, Europe treats it like a Law Enforcement problem but we don’t. And so long as “War” is the context of this policy, it is a policy that will never end. Furthermore, who gets to determine who is a terrorist? Some small group in DC,the President himself, who? It’s not a problem when we have an intelligent and discerning President, but Obama won’t be in office forever. Heaven forbid we get another GWB-like person or even worse a sociopath like Cheney. I, for one, don’t want the Executive Branch to have this much power forever. It’s okay during war time but war has to be finite.

        So we either have to leave it as a part of War and make the War a finite thing that allows for non-judicial oversight of targets, or we have to make it a law enforcement thing and with that comes the requirement of due process. This is good governance and caution against the potential of abuse. It’s not about partisanship or Greenwald’s histrionics (who, BTW, I despise with the white-hot passion of a thousand burning suns). Humans will abuse powers and bureaucracies make that abuse even easier. It makes sense to put some restrictions on this practice.