Legal and Moral Dilemmas of Drone Strikes in a Free Society

Sam Aydlette
Nov 25, 2012 at 8:11 AM


The American government is now using over 7,500 drones to strike targets in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Drone strikes in Pakistan alone have killed up to 3,341 people so far, despite a lack of Congressional approval.  But besides being illegal on Constitutional grounds, the drone strikes set dangerous new precedents that challenge the most basic tenets of a moral society.

Regarding civilian casualties, counterterrorism czar John Brennan said in June of 2011, “Due to our discretion and precision, the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq.” 

But the facts speak otherwise, with hundreds of reports coming in from news sources worldwide of civilian casualties.  Perhaps one of the problems with the U.S Government’s analysis is that the C.I.A often labels any military age male within the vicinity of a drone strike as an insurgent. 

Take for instance a drone strike in Pakistan in 2011 where at least 40 people were killed at an outdoor meeting over a tribal land dispute in broad daylight.  This meeting had been approved by the Pakistani military ten days earlier, but due to faulty intelligence missiles were fired into the gathering by a predator drone.  It is unclear if any of those people were affiliated with a terrorist group.  But even if the intelligence had been sound and there was a Taliban or Al-Qaeda member present, questions remain.  A police officer cannot go into a store shooting random people merely because one customer is a wanted criminal.

Even American citizens are not protected from being targeted and assassinated.  Take the story of 16-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of notorious Al-Qaeda sympathizer Anwar Al-Awlaki.  The boy was killed in a drone strike in Yemen along with his teenage cousin and six others.  He was born in Denver and lived with his grandparents.  He hadn’t been in contact with his father in over two years, but a month before his death he snuck out of his home, unsuccessfully looking for his father whom he had discovered was on an American kill list. 

While en route he learned of his father’s assassination and was heading home.  He was actually eating dinner with his second cousin and family friends when he was killed.  News reports based on government sources originally claimed he was a 21-year-old al-Qaeda fighter until his grandparents provided a birth certificate to the Washington Post.  No acknowledgement has been made to the family from those responsible, although the family has filed suit against Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and CIA director David Petraeus. 

When asked about how it was possible that 16 –year-old Al-Awlaki could have been targeted, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the wellbeing of their children.”  This sort of talk from high level Obama officials is disgraceful and shows a lack of respect for innocent human life.

Many of these moral outrages are occurring because of a lack of accountability within the Obama administration.  Rumors of “kill lists” signed off by unelected bureaucrats abound, partly because the administration has been unclear as to how the process of targeted killings actually works.  

John Brennan is the man who receives the intelligence and ultimately decides who will be presented to the President as a potential candidate for a strike.  But not every strike is approved by the President, and it is unclear under whose authority the attacks are carried out.

Another problem is that in many ways the drone strikes have made the American position in the Middle East worse.  The Government of Pakistan has repeatedly warned the U.S that it considers the strikes an infringement of sovereignty.  The strikes put the Pakistani Government in an impossible position; how can they justify their alliance with the U.S when American drones are killing their people and then denying it?  

Only last year did the Obama administration admit that drone strikes were even occurring in Pakistan.  The drone program is immensely unpopular in all of the countries where strikes are occurring.  In Yemen, protests due to perceived hypocrisy in the Yemeni Government in part due to their involvement with the U.S drone strike program threaten the stability of the state itself.

Lastly, drone strikes haven’t even proven to be substantially effective in combating Al-Qaeda.  According to the New American Foundation, only 51 high value targets have been killed in the Al-Qaeda leadership by drones.  Most of them have been replaced by an equally aggressive and extremist leader.  The attacks on Benghazi and the continued involvement of Al-Qaeda in the revolutions in Libya, Egypt, and Syria indicate that Al-Qaeda is nowhere near, “on the run,” as Obama claimed in a recent campaign speech. 

In fact, the drone strikes in Pakistan have merely caused Al-Qaeda leadership to shift their center of gravity to North Africa, thereby spreading its influence to yet another section of the Arab world.

It is up to the American people to demand accountability from the Obama administration about the drone strike program.  It is unconstitutional, and it is morally wrong.


Excellent piece, Sam. Thanks for writing this.

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