Skip to content Skip to footer

Anti-Drone Movement Grows: Ethics, Legality and Effectiveness of Drone Killings Doubted

(Photo: Doctress Neutopia / Flickr)

Zeese and Flowers examine the US drone program, its security effectiveness, legality under US and international law, state of development, and position in US opinion.

We are in the midst of a month of actions against drones. Nearly 4,000 people have been killed in some 420 “targeted killing” operations since the first US drone strike was conducted under the Bush administration in October 2001. There is now a growing movement of people speaking out and standing up to protest the use of drones by the United States in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as at home in the United States. Human rights groups are questioning their legality; clergy are questioning their ethics and activists are protesting their use. More are questioning whether the use of drones is actually decreasing or increasing terrorism.

Combat the epidemic of misinformation that plagues the corporate media! Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to Truthout and keep independent journalism strong.

On our weekly program, Clearing the FOG, we spoke with two guests who are working to build the movement against drones. Noor Mir, a citizen of Pakistan and graduate of Vassar who works on drones with the anti-war organization Codepink in Washington, DC, described how people in Pakistan no longer go to funerals or weddings; children refuse to go to school and people avoid events where they will be in groups because of the fear of drone attacks. Judy Bello of the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars points out that drones are used mostly in countries that we are not at war with, raising many legal and strategic questions.

Violence Begets Violence: There Is Another Way

In light of recent very public violent episodes, from the Boston Marathon bombing to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Americans now have a greater sense of what it must be like for people living in countries where the US attacks people with drones on a constant basis. Could you imagine experiencing mass killings involving innocent civilians every day? It is particularly alarming that US drones have murdered nearly 200 children.

Growing up in a war zone with constant fear of attack at any time and being forced to flee your home and community to live in a refugee camp or some other foreign place has dramatic psychological impacts. Civilians living in war zones suffer economically and experience shortages of basic necessities such as food, water and medicines. They also suffer from the threat or experience of being raped or beaten, losing a loved one and forced labor. Mental illness, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD) are high in areas of conflict. Women, children, the elderly and the disabled are the most vulnerable.

The use of drones has dramatically increased the geographic reach of war zones to countries with which the United States is not formally at war. How many young people around the world are growing up in fear because of US military policy that monitors them with the constant buzzing of drones overhead? In some remote places, all that the population knows about the United States is our drones.

The two bombs at the Boston Marathon killed three and injured nearly 200 people. On the same day in Iraq, torn apart by US war and occupation, across Baghdad, Kirkut, Tikrit and several other Iraqi cities, 55 were killed and more than 250 were injured.

On April 17, two days after the marathon bomb, US drones attacked a vehicle in Yemen’s Dhamar Province, killing five people, one of them identified as a local al-Qaeda leader in the Arabian Peninsula. We received an email from a Yemeni who was from the village where the attack occurred. He says: “Last night while I was enjoying a farewell dinner with a dear American Friend in Sana’a, the United States of America droned my village. There, my fellow village people joke that ‘God himself doesn’t reach their area’ due to how deprived and miserable a place the area is … It is the capital of misery and poverty and needed anything but a drone … The same hand that taught me English and changed my life one day, droned my village last night. Horribly, unbelievable.”

Attacks such as this create situations in which violence begets violence. Each Tuesday, President Obama meets national security advisers, reviews potential targets and approves drone killings. Then the US radicalizes whole populations in order to check a name off its kill list. Therefore, the first question we must deeply consider about US drone policy and military policy is, Does widespread use of drones make us less secure? Is there a better way?

A coalition of faith leaders wrote President Obama on April 16: “The use of these lethal weapons within the borders of other sovereign nations, at times without their permission, shrouded in secrecy and without clear legal authority, raises serious moral and ethical questions about the principles and the implications of this practice for US foreign relations and the prospects for a more peaceful world.”

The faith leaders point out that it would be more effective to use policies that do not “boost recruitment for extremist organizations,” but instead go to the root causes of violence “by creating conditions that defuse the hostility, including strategies to prevent violent conflict and to promote restorative justice practices, and effective economic development programs.”

The email from the villager from Yemen makes this same point: “It is a heart damaging and soul distorting action to see the greatest nation on Earth practicing its power on a powerless peaceful people while two police officers at the maximum were enough to go capture the target.” Would it not have been better for US security if the government acted within the rule of law? And, if, instead of spending so much on the military, we spent money to end poverty and illiteracy? These are questions we must seriously consider, especially as research shows a backlash against the United States as a consequence of constant drone killings.

The Legality of the US Drone Program

There are increasing questions about the legality of the US drone program, and more people raising them. The hearings on the confirmation of CIA director John Brennan stirred debate on this issue both inside and outside of government, and the filibuster by Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) brought a national spotlight to the issue.

Take the drone attack in Yemen we described above. The United States is not in an armed conflict with Yemen and has not declared war with Yemen. A group of ten human and civil rights organizations wrote to President Obama about the drone program on April 11, 2013. Their statement reads: “Outside of an armed conflict, where international human rights law applies, the United States can only target an individual if he poses an imminent threat to life and lethal force is the last resort.” They cite a 2010 report, “Study on Targeted Killings,” which examines the legal issues raised by the use of drones.

Even if the United States is in an armed conflict, there are limitations under international humanitarian law, whereby the United States can only directly target members of the armed forces of an enemy, military objectives or civilians directly participating in hostilities. Further, international law requires that, “In case of doubt whether a person is a civilian, that person shall be considered to be a civilian.” One Army manual reflects this, but the drone program does not.

In fact, civilian casualties are more common than killings of high-value targets. Stop Drones reports that “the CIA claims that of the nearly 2,500 Pakistanis killed in the drone attacks, 35 were ‘high value targets’ – that is, people it actually intended to kill. The rest it claims were mostly ‘suspected militants.'”

The human and civil rights groups point out that the administration has justified the drone killings by stating “it is in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda and ‘associated forces,’ which it defines as organized armed groups that have ‘entered the fight alongside al Qaeda’ and are ‘co-belligerent[s] with al Qaeda in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.'” But, the administration does not clearly define the characteristics of such organizations, and therefore, the rights groups point out, “this results in an aggressive and indefinitely expansive scope of targeting authority.”

While President Obama promised greater transparency about the drone program in his recent State of the Union, he has not lived up to that promise. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has written a memorandum that justifies the drone killings and claims they are legal. This is reminiscent of the George W. Bush administration DOJ drafting memos to justify torture. The Obama DOJ has only released a summary of the drone memo. One of the main purposes of the letter from the ten human and civil rights groups was to urge that the secret DOJ legal opinion be made public in order to ensure adequate Congressional oversight and to prevent drone warfare from continuing to be waged outside of the rule of law.

Unless things change, there will not be appropriate supervision and accountability for the use of drones. Just this month, the Obama administration refused to send a witness to a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution scheduled for April 23 on the legality of the drone program. The subcommittee even postponed the hearing in an effort to get the administration to send a witness. The subcommittee seeks to create a “transparent legal framework for the use of drones.”

Concern with the legality of the targeted killing program was heightened when McClatchy News Service reviewed top-secret intelligence reports that showed the Obama administration was misleading the public when it came to who was targeted by the program. President Obama and administration officials had claimed the program was being used only against known senior leaders of al-Qaeda and allied groups involved in the September 11, 2011, attacks plotting imminent attacks on Americans. President Obama said on CNN, “It has to be a threat that is serious and not speculative. It has to be a situation in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States.” The review of intelligence documents shows drone attacks did not “adhere to those standards,” McClatchy quotes drone expert Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations saying: “McClatchy’s findings indicate that the administration is ‘misleading the public about the scope of who can legitimately be targeted.'”

Glenn Greenwald, after reviewing the McClatchy report, highlights that the Obama administration and “not even the CIA, let alone ordinary citizens, has any idea of the identity of many of the people they are targeting for death.” Of course, this is true because, as Greenwald writes: “Obama (like Bush before him) approved the use of so-called ‘signature strikes,'” where the identity of the target is not known but they are targeted for death anyway “based on a ‘pattern of life’ analysis – intelligence on their behavior suggesting that an individual is a militant.'”

Mir described the broad way in which targets of drone attacks are chosen. It is based on a so-called “disposition matrix,” which means that patterns of movement are used to determine if a person is a suspect. In addition, all males over the age of 16 who live in a combat zone are considered to be enemy combatants. Mir states that it is often by chance that a young male’s home is in an area considered to be a combat zone. Fortunately, international bodies are beginning to question this rationale.

In January, prominent British human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson, a special investigator for the United Nations Human Rights Council, announced that the UN will be investigating the legality of the drone programs of the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel. He will lead a ten-member panel, which includes two US lawyers, whose immediate focus will be on 25 selected drone strikes that have been conducted in recent years in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Palestinian territories. He noted that drone programs have the potential to grow rapidly because 50 nation-states have technology that can be easily converted into an active drone arsenal. Emmerson said we cannot “drift blindly toward the precipice without any agreement between states as to the circumstances in which drone strike targeted killings are lawful, and on the safeguards necessary to protect civilians.”

After meeting with a wide array of people in Pakistan from within and outside of government, the UN investigators released a statement. They found:

  • The government emphasized its consistently stated position that drone strikes on its territory are counterproductive, contrary to international law, a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that they should cease immediately.
  • Pakistan is committed to an effective counterterrorism strategy that combines law enforcement with dialogue and development in an effort to tackle not only the manifestations of terrorism, but also its root causes in the region.
  • Reports of continuing tacit consent by Pakistan to the use of drones on its territory by any other state are false, and a thorough search of government records revealed no indication of such consent having been given.
  • There were 330 drone strikes since 2004, and drone strikes routinely inflicted civilian casualties; groups of adult males carrying out ordinary daily tasks were frequently the victims of such strikes.
  • The drone strikes are counterproductive because they gave rise to a desire, particularly among young men, to seek revenge for the drone strikes, thus radicalizing a new generation.

All of this makes the legality of the drone program more and more questionable and the need for further investigation critical. If the goal of the drone program is to reduce terrorism, it appears that the exact opposite is occurring. With each drone strike, more people are made to hate the United States and are willing to take action because the United States is acting in violation of the rule of law.

The Growing Movement Against Drones

The month of April is dedicated to protests across the country against drones. Next weekend, both authors of this column will speak at a culminating action in Syracuse, New York, where the Hancock Air Force Base is located. Hancock is one of the bases in the United States from which drones are piloted. The Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones & End the Wars has organized days of education, discussions on movement-building and protests from April 26 to 28 at Hancock.

Mir points out that the April month of actions against drones was put together by a coalition, a huge network of organizations from across the nation, and there are activities almost every day in April. Resistance to drones has grown significantly. Bello, of the Upstate Coalition, says that when she started the drone web site, she had to search for news to post, but now there is “so much I don’t have time to capture it all. Even the mainstream press is beginning to report drone issues, problems.” She describes how their coalition has been doing “Ghandian waves of protest .. with a handful of people who keep coming out to block the gate” at the Hancock Base. In order to stop the ongoing protests, the base is now using orders of protection requiring protesters to stay away from officers at the base. This approach results in the potential of more serious penalties for protesters.

We’ve already mentioned a group of faith-based leaders who have criticized the drone program, but a sign of growing anger about drones is a statement issued by The National Black Church Initiative, another faith group which is a coalition of 34,000 churches representing 15.7 million African-Americans. Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the Black Church Initiative, describes drone killings as an “evil policy” and says it has led him to pray “for the soul of this administration and for this president.”

Drones will become more controversial as they are increasingly used in the United States. According to Digital Trends,The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] estimates that within the next 15 years, more than 20,000 drones will take to the skies in the US, including drones operated by police, military, public health and safety agencies, corporations, and the public in general. That number is expected to jump to 30,000 within 20 years from today – a number the FAA refers to as ‘relatively small.'” The domestic use of drones raises another set of legal issues under the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution.

In Seattle, protests by city residents led Mayor Mick McGinn to stop the planned police use of drones. The mayor said that he and the police chief “agreed that it was time to end the unmanned aerial vehicle program, so that SPD can focus its resources on public safety and the community building work that is the department’s priority.” This February, Slate reported that Seattle is not alone: “In the past year, the American public has begun to pay more and more attention to the issue of domestic surveillance drones. And now, recent events suggest we might be seeing the emergence of a genuine national movement against the use of surveillance drones by law enforcement.”

One interesting aspect of the drone movement is that it cuts across the political spectrum, especially with the potential of tens of thousands of drones being used in the United States to spy on Americans. The 13-hour filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan by Tea Party Sen. Rand Paul over the use of drones was supported by liberal Democrat Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon). On March 7, Codepink tweeted: “Let’s go, left and right, to @SenRandPaul office, 208 Russell, today 1pm. Thank him for #filibuster.” They brought him flowers, posters and chocolate. They sang: “We love you, Rand, oh yes we do, when you are filibustering, we’ll stand with you.” It is not surprising that neoconservative extremist commentator Bill Kristol does not like the right-left alliance and mocked Sen. Paul as representing the “Codepink wing” of the Republican Party.

Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta created a medal of recognition for drone pilots. There was a backlash among veterans and citizen groups over the award. As a result, on April 15, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel canceled the new military medal for drone attacks and cyberwarfare.

World War II Purple Heart medalwinner Jay Wenk who is now active with Veterans for Peace, has a deep criticism of drone warfare, telling us, “Drones are another weapon for murder designed to keep the hands of our leaders clean.” Retired Navy Commander Leah Bolger, past president of Veterans for Peace, explains, “The combat drone program is responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, none of whom received any sort of due process; were citizens of a country with which we are not at war; and were murdered, not as a result of military action, but by a civilian agency – the CIA.” Veterans, like retired Col. Ann Wright, have been active in the movement, including being arrested in civil resistance actions against drones.

Another member of the Veterans for Peace board, Matt Southworth, criticizes drones from a national security perspective. He describes how short-term tactics that may kill some al-Qaeda leaders undermine long-term security, writing:

We now have a body of empirical evidence that suggests this policy does more harm than good. Recent studies – one produced by Stanford Law School and New York University School of Law and the other by Columbia Law School – indicate that the US may be doing irrevocable long term damage by using these drone strikes. Each report, focused on the US drones policy in Pakistan, suggests the cultural and psychological impacts of the US drone strike policy, in the long term, could do immeasurable harm to US security interests.

Advocates against drones are still in the early phases of building the resistance movement. At this stage, education is essential, so advocates have produced
a counter-drone organizing manual and have provided easy access to materials about drones and the basic facts about them. Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of Codepink, wrote a book on drones, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, now in its second edition. She tells us that the movement against drones is about to grow even bigger because of the new national network against drones and because of a new international coalition that arose at the World Social Forum in Tunisia, which Benjamin and Col. Wright attended. Benjamin reports:

Out of a workshop on Drones at the World Social Forum in Tunisia in March 2013 came a call to form an international organization to counter the proliferation of lethal and spy drones, called International Drones Watch. There were representatives from 15 countries at the initial gathering and we are now in the process of expanding the network. The purpose of this coalition is to share knowledge and actions concerning the misuse of drones for killing and spying. The issues we are concerned about include extrajudicial killings, civilian casualties, violations of international law, the lack of transparency and accountability, the ways drones make war “easy” and push aside nonviolent alternatives, and the skyrocketing amounts of money invested by governments in the purchase of drones at the expense of much needed social programs.

Americans’ Changing Views on Drones

Older research showed majority support by Americans for the use of drones, even high supermajority support, but new data reveals that there is a noticeable shift in public opinion. It is becoming evident that some of the polls that find support for drones are not based on the facts. When people realize that drone usage involves deaths of civilians, a majority of Americans express concern, according to a February 2013 Pew poll. A YouGov poll conducted this March found only 33 percent approved a president being allowed to target US citizens in the United States, and 47 percent said the president should never be able to target US citizens. A bare majority, 53 percent, approved the use of drones to kill high-level terrorist suspect overseas, but a plurality opposed the use of drones even on high-level targets overseas if it might kill civilians.

With the movement against drones growing and the truth about the Obama administration’s drone program becoming known, a backlash against drones will develop further. When more Americans realize that drones mostly kill civilians, target primarily low-level suspects where there is no imminent threat and will make Americans less safe because they create more hatred for the United States around the world, then many will conclude that the drone program has been a mistake. Getting the facts out to the people will continue to reverse public opinion.

At the same time that a movement is developing against drones, the military-industrial complex is making drones pre-eminent in US air warfare. The number of drones has increased more than forty-fold from 2002 to 2010, and spending on drones has increased from $284 million in fiscal year 2000 to $3.3 billion in the 2010 fiscal year. There are a total of 7,494 drones in the US military inventory, according to a January 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service, compared to 10,767 manned aircraft. US taxpayers will have invested about $11.8 billion in Reaper drones over the life of its program, which began in 2001 and will extend for at least several more years. The 2012 Department of Defense budget sets aside $1.069 billion for Reapers. The Air Force is believed to have about 60 Reapers, with plans to build a total of about 330.

The cutting-edge future drone programs include drones that are nuclear-fueled and will be able to be in the air for months and drones that do not require anyone to operate them. Drones will be shown a face and the drone robot will be sent to kill or monitor the person. Science-fiction robotic warfare is upon us, unless people stand up and say no. April marks the announcement of the Stop the Killer Robots campaign, which is a global effort to oppose the next generation of killing machines: autonomous weapons.

Once again, as it has been for centuries, this is a battle between profits and people, entrenched corporate interests seeking profit versus real solutions to the problems the country faces. It is time to seriously question whether the drone program is about stopping terrorism or whether it is primarily driven by defense contractors who see drones as the new moneymaking venture. Are drones simply the latest tool for expanding American empire? If the US government is truly interested in decreasing terrorism, the dollars spent on drones would be better spent on projects that decrease poverty and build positive relationships with communities around the world. It is up to us to raise these questions and insist upon honest answers. We suggest a moratorium on the drone program until it has been adequately studied and the results have been shared and debated publicly.

More Information:

Know Drones
No Drones Network
Drones Watch
Stop Drones

You can listen to Drone Warfare and Growing Resistance to it with Noor Mir and Judy Bello on Clearing the FOG Radio.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $48,000 in the next 8 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.