Conn Hallinan / Dispatches From the Edge & Scott Shane / The New York Times – 2012-08-13 00:31:54
Moral Drones and the New York Times
Conn Hallinan / Dispatches From the Edge
(July 8, 2012) — â€œâ€¦it may be a surprise to find some moral philosophers, political scientists, and weapons specialists believe unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.â€â€”Scott Shane, national security reporter for the New York Times, â€œThe Moral Defense For Drones,â€ 7/15/12
First, one should never be surprised to find that the NY Times can ferret out experts to say virtually anything. Didnâ€™t they dig up those who told us all that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons? Second, whenever the newspaper uses the words â€œsome,â€ thatâ€™s generally a tipoff the dice are loaded, in this case with a former Air Force officer (who teaches philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School), a former CIA deputy chief of counterintelligence, and political scientist Avery Plaw, author of â€œTargeting Terrorists: A License To Kill?â€
Shane has a problem, which he solves by a nimble bit of legerdemain: he starts off by raising the issue of law, sovereignty, radicalizing impact, and proliferation dangers (in three brief sentences), then quickly shifts to the contention that â€œmost criticsâ€ have â€œfocused on evidence that they [drones] are unintentionally killing innocent civilians.â€
He doesnâ€™t present any evidence that most criticism has focused on the collateral damage issue, but this allows him to move to the articleâ€™s centerpiece: â€œthe drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare.â€
Actually, critics have focused on a wide number of issues concerning drones. Is using drones in a country with which we are not at war, and one that opposes their use, a violation of international law? Is targeting an individual a form of extrajudicial capital punishment? Is killing American citizens a violation of the U.S. Constitutionâ€™s guarantee of a trial by a jury of oneâ€™s peers?
Is the use of armed drones by the White House bypassing the constitutional role of Congress to declare war? Does the role of the CIA in directing killer drones violate the prescriptions of the Geneva Convention against civilians engaging in armed conflicts?
But for argumentâ€™s sake, letâ€™s focus on the point about civilian casualties. According to Shane, the professor of philosophy has found that â€œdrones do a better job at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.â€ Shane adds that the drone operators â€œcan even divert a missile after firing if, say, a child wanders into range.â€
Nice touch about the kid, but according to London-base Bureau of Investigtive Journalists, *as of February of this year, drones have killed some 60 children, among between 282 to 535 civilians. Other estimates of civilian deaths are much higher.
But, points out the Times, the kill ratio suffered by civilians when Pakistan took back the Swat Valley from its local Taliban, and when Israel goes after Hamas, are much higher. And then, quoting the CIA guy: â€œLook at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare it with what we are doing today.â€ In short, civilians should be thankful they are not subjected to the brutality of the Pakistani and Israeli armies, or firebombed into oblivion?
Shane manages to avoid mentioning Part IV of the additions to the Geneva Conventions (1977) on the protection of civilian populations â€œAgainst the Effects of Hostilities.â€ Article 49 and 50 are particularly relevant. Essentially they boil down to the stipulation that only â€œmilitary objectivesâ€ can be targeted.
The Timeâ€™s security expert also fails to mention the policy of â€œsignature strikes,â€ which means anyone carrying weapons, or hanging out in a house used by â€œmilitants,â€ is fair game. â€œSignature strikesâ€ are an explicit violation of Article 50: â€œThe presence within the civilian population of individuals who do not come within the definition of civilians does not deprive the population of its civilian character.â€
Of course, none of us know what criteria are used to identify someone as a â€œmilitantâ€ or a â€œterrorist,â€ because the Obama administration refuses to release the legal findings that define those categories.
In Yemen, many of the targeted â€œterroristsâ€ are not Al Qaeda members, but southern separatists who have been fighting to re-establish the Republic of South Yemen. In any case, people are being killed and we have no idea how they ended up sentenced to death.
For instance, it is apparently a capital offense to try to rescue people following a drone strike, or to go to the funeral for those killed. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, some 50 rescuers have been killed, and more than 20 mourners.
Many of these small villages have strong kinship ties, and helping out or mourning the dead is a powerful cultural tradition. Acting as a kinsman to someone the White House defines as an â€œenemyâ€ may end up being fatal.
In some ways the civilian deaths are a straw man, not because they are not important, but because â€œcriticsâ€ have focused on a wide number of issues brought up by the drones. Among them is the apparent dismantling of Congressâ€™s constitutional role in declaring war.
When some members of Congress raised this issue with respect to the Libyan War, and whether it fell under the rubric of the Wars Power Act, the Obama administration argued that it did not, because the Libya operation did not â€œinvolve the use of U.S. ground troops, U.S. casualties, or a serious threat thereof.â€
But as Peter Singer of the Brookings Institute points out, the Libyan operation certainly involved â€œsomething we used to think of as war: blowing up stuff, lots of it.â€ The U.S. air war was the key to overthrowing Qaddafi. U.S. planes and drones carried out attacks and directed strikes by allied aircraft. The Americans also resupplied allied aircraft with bombs and missiles, and provided in-air refueling.
Given the enormous expansion of drones, the definition of war as limited to acts likely to lead to â€œcasualtiesâ€ opens up a Pandoraâ€™s box. The U.S. currently has more than 7,000 drones, many of them, like the Predator and the Reaper, are armed. The U.S. Defense Department plans to spend about $31 billion on â€œremotely piloted aircraftâ€ by 2015, and the U.S. Air Force is training more remote operators than pilots for its fighters and bombers.
Fleets of armed drones could be released to fight wars all over the world, with casualties limited to mechanical failures or the occasional drone that wandered too close to an anti-aircraft system. Under the White Houseâ€™s definition, what those drones did, and whom they did it to, is none of Congressâ€™s business.
What in the Constitution gives the power of life and death over U.S. citizens to the President of the United States? The militant American-Yemini cleric Anwar-al-Awlaki was no admirer of the U.S., but there is no public finding that he ever did anything illegal. Never the less, a drone-fired Hellfire missile killed him last October.
And a few weeks later, another drone killed his Denver-born 16-year old son, Abdulraham-al-Awlaki, who was out looking for his father. Ibrahim-al-Banna was the target of that strike, but as one U.S. official told Time, the son was in the â€œwrong place at the wrong time.â€ That particular statement is an explicit violation of Article 50 of the Conventions.
â€œThe question is, is killing always justified?â€ asks University of Texas at El Paso political scientist Armin Krisnan. â€œThere is not public accountability for that.â€
The Yemen strike has sparked outrage in that country, as have other drone strikes. â€œThis is why AQAP [Al Qadea in the Arabian Peninsula] is much stronger in Yemen today that it was a few years ago,â€ says Ibrahim Mothana, co-founder of Yemenâ€™s Watan Party.
There are lots of critics raising lots of difficult to answer questions, and they focus on much more than civilian casualties (although that is a worthy topic of consideration). The â€œmoralâ€ case for drones is not limited to the parameters set by the NY Times. In any case, the issue is not the morality of drones; they have none.
Nor do they have politics or philosophy. They are simply soulless killing machines. The morality at play is with those who define the targets and push the buttons that incinerate people we do not know half a world away.
Update on Done Strikes
The Bureau if Investigation
(August 1, 2012) — Presently we report (for Pakistan alone) from 2004 to today
Total US strikes: 335
Obama strikes: 283
Total reported killed: 2,513-3,226
Civilians reported killed: 482-835
Children reported killed: 175
Total reported injured: 1,198-1,324
The Moral Case for Drones
Scott Shane / The New York Times
WASHINGTON ( July 14, 2012) — For streamlined, unmanned aircraft, drones carry a lot of baggage these days, along with their Hellfire missiles. Some people find the very notion of killer robots deeply disturbing. Their lethal operations inside sovereign countries that are not at war with the United States raise contentious legal questions. They have become a radicalizing force in some Muslim countries. And proliferation will inevitably put them in the hands of odious regimes.
But most critics of the Obama administration’s aggressive use of drones for targeted killing have focused on evidence that they are unintentionally killing innocent civilians. From the desolate tribal regions of Pakistan have come heartbreaking tales of families wiped out by mistake and of children as collateral damage in the campaign against Al Qaeda. And there are serious questions about whether American officials have understated civilian deaths.
So it may be a surprise to find that some moral philosophers, political scientists and weapons specialists believe armed, unmanned aircraft offer marked moral advantages over almost any other tool of warfare.
“I had ethical doubts and concerns when I started looking into this,” said Bradley J. Strawser, a former Air Force officer and an assistant professor of philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School. But after a concentrated study of remotely piloted vehicles, he said, he concluded that using them to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.
“You have to start by asking, as for any military action, is the cause just?” Mr. Strawser said. But for extremists who are indeed plotting violence against innocents, he said, “all the evidence we have so far suggests that drones do better at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.”
Since drone operators can view a target for hours or days in advance of a strike, they can identify terrorists more accurately than ground troops or conventional pilots. They are able to time a strike when innocents are not nearby and can even divert a missile after firing if, say, a child wanders into range.
Clearly, those advantages have not always been used competently or humanely; like any other weapon, armed drones can be used recklessly or on the basis of flawed intelligence. If an operator targets the wrong house, innocents will die.
Moreover, any analysis of actual results from the Central Intelligence Agency’s strikes in Pakistan, which has become the world’s unwilling test ground for the new weapon, is hampered by secrecy and wildly varying casualty reports. But one rough comparison has found that even if the highest estimates of collateral deaths are accurate, the drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare.
AVERY PLAW, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, put the CIA drone record in Pakistan up against the ratio of combatant deaths to civilian deaths in other settings. Mr. Plaw considered four studies of drone deaths in Pakistan that estimated the proportion of civilian victims at 4 percent, 6 percent, 17 percent and 20 percent respectively.
But even the high-end count of 20 percent was considerably lower than the rate in other settings, he found. When the Pakistani Army went after militants in the tribal area on the ground, civilians were 46 percent of those killed. In Israel’s targeted killings of militants from Hamas and other groups, using a range of weapons from bombs to missile strikes, the collateral death rate was 41 percent, according to an Israeli human rights group.
In conventional military conflicts over the last two decades, he found that estimates of civilian deaths ranged from about 33 percent to more than 80 percent of all deaths.
Mr. Plaw acknowledged the limitations of such comparisons, which mix different kinds of warfare. But he concluded, “A fair-minded evaluation of the best data we have available suggests that the drone program compares favorably with similar operations and contemporary armed conflict more generally.”
By the count of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, which has done perhaps the most detailed and skeptical study of the strikes, the CIA operators are improving their performance. The bureau has documented a notable drop in the civilian proportion of drone casualties, to 16 percent of those killed in 2011 from 28 percent in 2008. This year, by the bureau’s count, just three of the 152 people killed in drone strikes through July 7 were civilians.
The drone’s promise of precision killing and perfect safety for operators is so seductive, in fact, that some scholars have raised a different moral question: Do drones threaten to lower the threshold for lethal violence?
“In the just-war tradition, there’s the notion that you only wage war as a last resort,” said Daniel R. Brunstetter, a political scientist at the University of California at Irvine who fears that drones are becoming “a default strategy to be used almost anywhere.”
With hundreds of terrorist suspects killed under President Obama and just one taken into custody overseas, some question whether drones have become not a more precise alternative to bombing but a convenient substitute for capture. If so, drones may actually be encouraging unnecessary killing.
Few imagined such debates in 2000, when American security officials first began to think about arming the Predator surveillance drone, with which they had spotted Osama bin Laden at his Afghanistan base, said Henry A. Crumpton, then deputy chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, who tells the story in his recent memoir, “The Art of Intelligence.”
“We never said, ‘Let’s build a more humane weapon,’ ” Mr. Crumpton said. “We said, ‘Let’s be as precise as possible, because that’s our mission — to kill Bin Laden and the people right around him.’ ”
Since then, Mr. Crumpton said, the drone war has prompted an intense focus on civilian casualties, which in a YouTube world have become harder to hide. He argues that technological change is producing a growing intolerance for the routine slaughter of earlier wars.
“Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare what we’re doing today,” Mr. Crumpton said. “The public’s expectations have been raised dramatically around the world, and that’s good news.”
Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times.
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