What's Not Wrong With Drones?

The wildly overblown case against remote-controlled war. 

For many on the political left, and more than a few in the middle, drone strikes are the paradigmatic example of U.S. militarism run amok. I'm not crazy about the way the United States has been using drone strikes myself, but many of the most common objections to drones don't hold up well under scrutiny.

Let's review the case against the drones.

1. Drone strikes kill innocent civilians.

This is undoubtedly true, but it's not an argument against drone strikes as such. War kills innocent civilians, period. But some means and methods of warfare tend to cause more unintended civilian deaths than others.

"Drones scout over [Afghanistan and Pakistan] launching Hellfire missiles into the region missing their intended targets, resulting in the deaths of many innocent people," trumpets the website for Code Pink, a women's peace group. Similarly, the Anti-War Committee asserts that "the physical distance between the drone and its shooter makes lack of precision unavoidable."

But to paraphrase the NRA, "Drones don't kill people, people kill people." At any rate, drone strikes kill civilians at no higher a rate, and almost certainly at a lower rate, than most other common means of warfare.  Drones actually permit far greater precision in targeting. Today's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can carry small bombs that do less widespread damage, and there's no human pilot whose fatigue might limit flight time. Their low profile and relative fuel efficiency combines with this to permit them to spend more "time on target" than any manned aircraft.

Drones can engage in "persistent surveillance.­" That means they don't just swoop in, fire missiles and swoop out: they may spend hours, days, or even months monitoring a potential target. Equipped with imaging technologies that enable operators even thousands of miles away to see details as fine as individual faces, modern drone technologies allow their operators to distinguish between civilians and combatants far more effectively than most other weapons systems.

That doesn't mean civilians don't get killed in drone strikes. They do.

How many civilians? It depends how you count. The British Bureau of Investigative Journalism analyzed reports by "government, military and intelligence officials, and by credible media, academic and other sources" and came up with a range: the 344 known drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2012 killed between 2,562 and 3,325 people, of whom between 474 and 881 were civilians. (The numbers for Yemen and Somalia are much squishier.) The New America Foundation, at which I'm a fellow, came up with slightly lower numbers: somewhere between 1,873 and 3,171 people killed overall in Pakistan, of whom between 282 and 459 were civilians.

That means somewhere between 8 percent and 47 percent of Pakistan drone strike victims were probably civilians. Work out the civilian deaths per drone strike ratio for the last eight years, and on average, each drone strike seems to have killed between 0.8 and 2.5 civilians.

These are gruesome calculations: behind the numbers, regardless of which data set is right, lie the mangled bodies of human beings. But whether drones strikes cause "a lot" or "only a few" civilian casualties depends what we regard as the right point of comparison. A study by the International Committee for the Red Cross found that on average, 10 civilians died for every combatant killed during the armed conflicts of the 20th century. For the Iraq War, estimates vary widely; different studies place the ratio of civilian deaths to combatant deaths anywhere between 10 to 1 and 2 to 1.

Compared to the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, drone strikes look pretty good. Compared to world peace, not so much.

The most meaningful point of comparison is probably manned aircraft. It's difficult to get solid numbers here, but one analysis published in the Small Wars Journal suggested that in 2007 the ratio of civilian deaths due to coalition air attacks in Afghanistan may have been as high as 15 to 1. More recent UN figures suggest a far lower rate, with as few as one civilian killed for every ten airstrikes in Afghanistan.

But drone strikes have also gotten far less lethal for civilians in the last few years: the New America Foundation concludes that only three to nine civilians were killed during 72 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan in 2011, and the 2012 number -- so far -- is zero civilians killed in 36 strikes.  In part, this is due to technological advances over the last decade, but it's also due to far more stringent rules for when drones can release weapons.

2. Drones strikes are bad because killing at a distance is unsavory.

Really? If killing from a safe distance (say, Creech Air Force Base in Nevada) is somehow "wrong," what should be our preferred alternative -- stripping troops of body armor, or taking away their guns and requiring them to engage in hand-to-hand combat? If drone strikes enable us to kill enemies without exposing our own personnel, this is presumably a good thing, not a bad thing. Maybe we shouldn't kill anyone, or maybe we're killing the wrong people -- but these are assertions about ethics, intelligence and strategy, not about drones.

Drones don't present any "new" issues not already presented by aerial bombing -- or by any previous historical method of killing from a distance. In the early 1600s, Cervantes called artillery a "devilish invention" allowing "a base cowardly hand to take the life of the bravest gentleman," with bullets "coming nobody knows how or from whence." (Much like drones.)

The longbow and cross bow were also once considered immoral, for that matter: in 1139, the Second Lateran Council of Pope Innocent II is said to have "prohibit[ed] under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hateful to God" -- at least when used against Christians.

3. Drones Turn Killing into a Video Game.

Writing in the Guardian, Phillip Allston (the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions) and Hina Shamsi of the ACLU decry "the PlayStation mentality" created by drone technologies. "Young military personnel raised on a diet of video games now kill real people remotely using joysticks. Far removed from the human consequences of their actions, how will this generation of fighters value the right to life?"

But are drones more "video game-like" than, say, having cameras in the noses of cruise missiles?  Those old enough to remember the first Gulf War will recall the shocking novelty of images taken by cameras inside U.S. Tomahawk missiles, the jolting, grainy images in the crosshairs before everything went ominously black.

Regardless, there's little evidence that drone technologies "reduce" their operators' awareness of human suffering. If anything, drone operators may be far more keenly aware of the suffering they help inflict than any distant sniper or bomber pilot could be.

Journalist Daniel Klaidman reports the words of one CIA drone operator, a former Air Force pilot: "I used to fly my own air missions.... I dropped bombs, hit my target load, but had no idea who I hit. [With drones], I can look at their faces... see these guys playing with their kids and wives.... After the strike, I see the bodies being carried out of the house. I see the women weeping and in positions of mourning. That's not PlayStation; that's real."

Increasingly, there's evidence that drone pilots, just like combat troops, can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder: watching a man play with his children, then seeing his mangled body takes a psychological toll. A recent Air Force study found that 29 percent of drone pilots suffered from "burnout," with 17 percent "clinically distressed."

4. Targeted killings are creepy.

Many critics of drone strikes are also broadly uncomfortable with targeted killings, viewing them as little more than assassinations or simple murder. In targeted killings, lethal force is aimed at specific, named individuals. (Not all targeted killings involve drone strikes, just as not all drone strikes are targeted killings.)

Last week, I wrote that whether targeted killings are lawful depends entirely on whether you think the law of war applies in a given situation. But assuming it does apply -- which is surely true in Afghanistan, at least-- it's hard to see the problem with targeted killing. Should we prefer untargeted killing?

Going after a named, specifically identifiable individual we know to be a bad guy may make us uncomfortable, but it's surely better -- assuming our intelligence is solid -- than, say, lobbing grenades into a compound filled with unnamed probable bad guys.

None of this means we should feel sanguine about the way drone strikes are used by the United States. In next week's column, I'll focus on reasons we should worry about drone strikes. Current U.S. practice presents glaring rule of law problems, and unmanned technologies also provide the executive branch with a new means of circumventing the War Powers Act, increasing the temptation to use force. Perhaps even more ominously, the increased use of drones by the U.S. also risks completely unsettling the precarious collective security structures created by the U.N. Charter.

There's plenty not to like about drone warfare. But if we're going to critique it, we should do so for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

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By Other Means

All the Pentagon's Lawyers

One man's targeted strike is another man's state-sanctioned murder.

In 1999, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, both colonels in China's People's Liberation Army, published a slender book called Unrestricted Warfare. The two officers predicted that technological innovations and globalization would change warfare almost beyond recognition. In a world of cyberattacks, asymmetric warfare, and transnational terrorism, they wrote, "the three indispensable 'hardware' elements of any war … soldiers, weapons and a battlefield … have changed so that it is impossible to get a firm grip on them.… [I]s the war god's face still distinct?"

Qiao and Wang published Unrestricted Warfare two years before the 9/11 attacks, and their description of likely changes in warfare was strikingly prescient. In previous columns, I've described some ways these changes challenge our most basic ideas of what a military is, does, and should do, and suggested that failing to fully confront those changes and challenges is a surefire way to end up with a national security strategy that's both incoherent and inefficient.

It's also a surefire way to damage the rule of law.

A lot of ink has been spilled defining the rule of law (some of it by me), but at root it's pretty simple. The rule of law requires that governments follow transparent, universally applicable, and clearly defined laws and procedures. The goal is to prevent the arbitrary exercise of power. When you've got the rule of law, the government can't fine you, lock you up, or kill you on a whim -- it can only do that in accordance with pre-established rules that reflect basic notions of humanity and fairness.

When you don't have the rule of law, life can get unpleasant. Qiao and Wang, for instance, come from a country where the rule of law is only partially realized, and arbitrary detention and executions without due process remain common. Or consider the grievances enumerated in the American Declaration of Independence: Britain's King George III, the colonists complained, deprived them of "the benefits of Trial by Jury," refused "his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers," transported prisoners "beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences," and "affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power."

Bad stuff! Americans fought a long and bloody war over it.

Today, however, the very same changes that challenge our long-held assumptions about the military also challenge the rule of law America once fought so hard to establish both domestically and globally. (The United States was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations and the various international human rights treaties and institutions.) For when the idea of "war" loses definition -- when the war god's face grows indistinct -- we lose any principled basis for deciding when the law of war applies, and when it doesn't.

That sounds like a tedious, technical issue -- the kind of thing usually discussed in long, tedious legal articles -- but it's no mere technicality. The law of war permits a wide range of state-sanctioned behaviors that are considered illegal (and immoral) when the law of war doesn't apply.

Start with the obvious: In war, the willful killing of human beings is permitted, whether the means of killing is a gun, a bomb, or a long-distance drone strike. But just try going out onto Main Street and bashing a random passer-by over the head with a brick until he's dead: When the laws of war don't apply, we call that murder.

The same goes for a wide range of other behaviors. In war, it's OK for a lawful combatant to knowingly inflict injury and death on others (as long as they're enemy combatants or otherwise participating in hostilities, or, if they're ordinary civilians, as long as your actions were consistent with the principles of proportionality and distinction). Ditto destruction of property, and ditto various restrictions on individual liberties. In war, enemy combatants can be detained (with little or no due process) for the duration of the conflict -- not because they have committed crimes, but to keep them from returning to the battlefield. Civilians can also be detained if they pose specific threats.

This is a radical oversimplification of a very complex body of law. But as with the rule of law, the basic idea is pretty simple. When there's no war -- when ordinary, peacetime law applies -- agents of the state aren't supposed to lock you up, take your stuff, or kill you, unless they've jumped through a whole lot of legal hoops first. You're protected both by domestic law and (in theory) by international human rights law.

When there's a war, though, everything changes. It's not quite a free-for-all -- torture, rape, and killing that is willful, wanton, and "not justified by military necessity" remain crimes under the law of war -- but there are far fewer constraints on state behavior.

This seems reasonable enough, and it's not inherently inconsistent with the rule of law. As long, that is, as war is the exception, not the norm, and as long as we can all agree on what constitutes a war, and as long we can tell when the war begins and ends, and as long as we all know how to tell the difference between a combatant and a civilian and between places where there's war and places where there's no war.…

You see the problem. When concepts such as "war" get blurry, the law gets blurry. When it gets blurry enough, you lose the predictability and transparency so vital to any idea of the rule of law.

And this is where we are right now. The U.S. government hasn't offered clear, full, and consistent answers to any of the key rule-of-law questions related to the ongoing war against al Qaeda and its "associates." Is there a future point at which the war will end and detainees will be released? Based on what criteria might someone be considered a combatant or directly participating in hostilities? Is serving as Osama bin Laden's chef enough? How about the little old Somali lady in Detroit who gives money to an Islamic charity that serves as a front for a terrorist organization? Can she be targeted? What constitutes hostilities, and what does it mean to participate in them? And just where is the war? Does the war (and thus the law of war) somehow "travel" with combatants -- if a suspected al Qaeda operative goes to Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, do the laws of war apply to U.S. actions in those countries?

These questions matter.

Take drone strikes. Say -- hypothetically! -- that the CIA uses an unmanned aerial vehicle to kill a U.S. citizen who it suspects is a member of Mali's Ansar Dine, a creepy militant Islamist group said to be allied with al Qaeda.

If being a suspected member of Ansar Dine makes someone a combatant in a war on al Qaeda and the laws of war apply with regard to combatants regardless of the sovereign state within which they operate, then the hypothetical drone strike is perfectly lawful, U.S. citizenship notwithstanding. There's a war; the laws of war apply; enemy combatants can be targeted and killed; and everything is peachy.

But if there's no war -- or if the suspected Ansar Dine member is neither a combatant nor a civilian engaged in hostilities, or if there is a war, somewhere, but not in Mali -- then the hypothetical drone strike would be state-sanctioned murder (of a U.S. citizen, no less).

The problem is that we have no principled basis for deciding how to categorize such targeted killings. Barack Obama's administration -- much like George W. Bush's administration before it -- has argued that these are fact-based, individualized determinations. But the information on which the determinations are made is classified. Outside a small circle of U.S. executive branch officials, no one knows what evidence was relied on, and no one knows precisely how the United States defines "combatant." What's more, the administration takes the view that no court has jurisdiction to review these determinations and that selected members Congress need only be informed in a general way.

I can't find it in me to condemn the decisions made by my former colleagues in the Obama administration or those who preceded them in the Bush administration. The law of war was developed in a different era, with a different set of realities in mind. The world has changed, and today we're still stuck trying to make legal arguments based on once-clear categories that no longer have much value. (To paraphrase the immortal Donald Rumsfeld, Bush and Obama went to war with the law they had, not the law we might have wished they had). The result, though, is that neither law nor political institutions now offer any limiting principles on state use of coercion and force.

Back in 1999, Qiao and Wang called it exactly right. Globalization, technological change, and the rise of transnational terrorism would, they warned, lead to "the destruction of rules … [and] the domains delineated by visible or invisible boundaries which are acknowledged by the international community lose effectiveness." In this new era, "all means will be in readiness … and the battlefield will be everywhere … [and] all the boundaries lying between the two worlds of war and non-war, of military and non-military, will be totally destroyed."

Every individual detained, targeted, and killed by the U.S. government may well deserve his fate. But when a government claims for itself the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely unnamed individuals, it has blown a gaping hole in the rule of law.

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