By Vicki Liu
On October 7, 2011, Defense Secretary and former CIA director Leon Panetta joked that “obviously I have a helluva lot more weapons available to me in this job than I had at the CIA — Although the Predators aren’t that bad.”
This seemingly innocuous remark is actually an indicator of what probably is our government’s most prized secret. The use of drones in the military. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the use of the Predator has surged in popularity and is largely constituting the United States’ entire counter-terrorism initiative. Many terrorism “linch-pins” have been eliminated this way and just last week, key Al Queada leader Anwar Awlaki was killed in Yemen during a CIA led drone strike. Yet, even with this reasonable success, why does the government continue to keep these weapons under a veil of secrecy? Panetta’s remark represents one of the first use of the word drone (Predator) in a statement, instead of it’s preferred anonymous grouping into “counter-terrorism operations.” Consequently, the fact that the U.S government does not officially recognize the use of drones on foreign soil causes several implications.
First is the problem of government accountability. As of now the use of drones for targeted killing is an extra-judicial process that the government need not account about. This allows for plausible deniability whenever mistakes occur and if there is significant collateral damage conducted by the drones. According to the New America Foundation 32 per cent of those killed in drone attacks since 2004 were civilians. Their study was conducted over 114 drone raids in which more than 1200 people were killed. Of those, between 549 and 849 were militant targets while the rest were innocent. Despite these damages, Obama has still deemed drones a “high value” weapon. At the point where the government is not responsible for lost lives and damaged infrastructure, how does the cost of war change?
Second is the implications on foreign relations. The attacks against terrorists groups that base themselves in Pakistan have caused much tension to rise between it and the U.S. Additionally, Pakistani citizens are outraged at their loved ones being killed, and their homes being destroyed all thanks to the misjudgment of these unmanned weapons. The unmanned nature of drones is what makes them the most valuable as well as the most hated weapon used by the CIA. Although it guarantees the safety of soldiers, it subjects innocent citizens to the pain and humiliation of having their lives ruined by an unfeeling machine that cannot even feel remorse for its actions. The Pakistani government has continued to voice it’s anger at the U.S for using these tactics on their soil without their permission or knowledge, and the loss of this tenuous ally could be crucial in the War on Terror.
Third is the particular implications of the death of Anwar Awlaki. Unlike most terrorists that the U.S targets, Anwar was an American citizen. This begs the interesting question of whether or not his killing without any notification — let alone a trial — was unconstitutional. In America the government recognizes a duty to it’s citizens, the most important of which being security. Would this constitute a violation of that duty? And if not, who will be responsible for defining this bright line in the constitution?
In order to continue this conversation, it is important to keep in mind, the tradeoffs due to terrorism . What exactly are we willing to give up for security? Privacy? Rights? Accountability? Trustworthiness of the government? Which duties are okay to violate? Which core American values are okay to undermine once in a while? Thus, in order to think about the nature of drones, it is necessary to think about counter-terrorism culture and how it defines our lives.
1 David S. Cloud, “U.S.: Defense secretary refers to CIA drone use.” Los Angeles Times. October 7, 2011 .
2 Dean Nelson, “One in three killed by US drones in Pakistan is a civilian, report claims.” The Telegraph. October 8, 2011 .
3 LOLITA C. BALDOR, “Panetta spills a little on secret CIA drones,” Associated Press. October 7, 2011 .
4 Yael Stein. Response to Israel’s policy of Targeted Killing: By Any Name Illegal and Immoral. 2003.