The Risks of Obama's Immoral Drone War

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Every American bears a share of the blame for the innocents killed and the imprudence of weakening historic restraints on the president

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Every Western democracy has answered the question, "How should the power of the leader be checked?" In the United States, we separated the role of the sovereign into three co-equal branches, incorporated the Bill of Rights into our written Constitution, and scheduled regular elections when the people, having observed the actions of the executive and legislative branches, regularly decide whether to oust them from office or send them back to Washington, D.C.

When we undercut these safeguards, we accept some share of responsibility for the excesses that result. Bear that in mind as you read Jane Mayer's description of the new way that America kills its foreign enemies, along with an unknowable number of innocents that add up to hundreds at minimum. "The U.S. government runs two drone programs. The military's version, which is publicly acknowledged, operates in the recognized war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq, and targets enemies of U.S. troops stationed there. As such, it is an extension of conventional warfare," she writes. "The C.I.A.'s program is aimed at terror suspects around the world, including in countries where U.S. troops are not based. It was initiated by the Bush Administration and, according to Juan Zarate, a counterterrorism adviser in the Bush White House, Obama has left in place virtually all the key personnel. The program is classified as covert, and the intelligence agency declines to provide any information to the public about where it operates, how it selects targets, who is in charge, or how many people have been killed."

Put another way, this single C.I.A. program weakens the separation of powers, the Bill of Rights, and the accountability of America's leaders to its citizenry. It weakens the separation of powers by diluting Congress' role in declaring war and shaping foreign policy, as the executive branch operates in any country it sees fit; it weakens the Bill of Rights insofar as it has targeted and will continue to target American citizens for assassination without any due process; and it diminishes the degree to which government is accountable to voters in three ways. 1) It vests substantial power in an opaque bureaucratic agency whose leadership is unaccountable to voters; 2) insofar as it diminishes the Congressional role in foreign policy, it also lessens the people's influence, especially  as exercised through the House of Representatives; 3) by operating in secrecy, it prevents voters from having enough information to judge even the behavior of the president, who has an incentive to hide not just acts that are sensitive for national security reasons, but behavior that would hurt or inconvenience him politically.

It reflects poorly on Congress and the citizenry itself that we permit the executive branch to kill people, including innocents, sans the safeguards necessary to prevent illegal and immoral acts from being perpetrated in our names, or even demanding that we know what is being done. Our inattention is partly due to gross civic negligence -- we're okay punishing innocent civilians in other countries for the behavior of the authoritarian regimes they live under, but don't trouble ourselves to insist on knowing what exactly our government is doing -- and partly to cowardice, a feeling that we'll be safer if we continue to operate on what Dick Cheney called "the dark side," even if we aren't willing to fully confront what it means. In fact, America ought to affirm its ideals and its constitutional safeguards even if it makes us marginally more vulnerable to a terrorist attack, but it is far from clear that our present course does make us safer.

There are the unintended geopolitical consequences that involve state actors. "Because of the C.I.A. program's secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war," Mayer writes. "Should something go wrong in the C.I.A.'s program--last month, the Air Force lost control of a drone and had to shoot it down over Afghanistan--it's unclear what the consequences would be." Our behavior is also normalizing drone use and targeted assassinations, neither of which is likely to enhance our security in the long run.

Nor is it difficult to see the potential for blow-back from non-state actors, though that potential  is irrationally ignored in almost all of the public debates, insofar as there are any, about our policies.

Says Mayer's article:

"A lot of the targets are nominated by the Pakistanis--it's part of the bargain of getting Pakistani coöperation," says Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer who has served as an adviser to the Obama Administration on Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the New America Foundation's study, only six of the forty-one C.I.A. drone strikes conducted by the Obama Administration in Pakistan have targeted Al Qaeda members. Eighteen were directed at Taliban targets in Pakistan, and fifteen were aimed specifically at Baitullah Mehsud. Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani lieutenant general and an authority on security issues, says that the U.S.'s tactical shift, along with the elimination of Mehsud, has quieted some of the Pakistani criticism of the American air strikes, although the bombings are still seen as undercutting the country's sovereignty.

Does anyone really believe that the United States can take sides in what amounts to a covert civil war within Pakistan, targeting fighters who formerly had no ambitions outside of their country, and not make new enemies? Or that it is morally defensible to outsource our hit list to Pakistan!? 

As Mayer goes on to note:

In several Pakistani cities, large protests have been held to decry the drone program. And, in the past year, perpetrators of terrorist bombings in Pakistan have begun presenting their acts as "revenge for the drone attacks." In recent weeks, a rash of bloody assaults on Pakistani government strongholds has raised the spectre that formerly unaligned militant groups have joined together against the Zardari Administration.

David Kilcullen, a counter-insurgency warfare expert who has advised General David Petraeus in Iraq, has said that the propaganda costs of drone attacks have been disastrously high. Militants have used the drone strikes to denounce the Zardari government--a shaky and unpopular regime--as little more than an American puppet. A study that Kilcullen co-wrote for the Center for New American Security, a think tank, argues, "Every one of these dead non-combatants represents an alienated family, a new revenge feud, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially even as drone strikes have increased."

As if that wasn't worrisome enough, "the Joint Integrated Prioritized Target List--the Pentagon's roster of approved terrorist targets, containing three hundred and sixty-seven names--was recently expanded to include some fifty Afghan drug lords who are suspected of giving money to help finance the Taliban. These new targets are a step removed from Al Qaeda. According to the Senate report, 'There is no evidence that any significant amount of the drug proceeds goes to Al Qaeda.'" It it even clear that this expansion of targeted killings is covered by the authorization of force that Congress passed after the September 11 terrorist attacks?

Does anyone even care anymore?

In deciding that America is at war with terrorism, the American people and their representatives have seemingly stopped caring whether it is being waged lawfully or in a fashion that doesn't undermine the core safeguards we have to prevent our leaders from acting tyrannically. The most worrisome aspect of all this isn't that there are vehement disagreements about what we ought to be doing, so much as that a majority of people have tacitly accepted the idea that it's okay if the citizenry has no idea what it's government is doing abroad.

How pretty it would be if we could escape the necessity of making moral judgments by pretending that, so long as they occur under the designation "top secret," we aren't ultimately responsible. But ours is a government by the people. As just war theory affirms, killing innocents is in rare circumstances morally defensible, the lesser of moral evils, but America is going much farther than that; and justified or not, the blood is on all of our hands. As Mayer writes, "the recent campaign to kill Baitullah Mehsud offers a sobering case study of the hazards of robotic warfare. It appears to have taken sixteen missile strikes, and fourteen months, before the C.I.A. succeeded in killing him. During this hunt, between two hundred and seven and three hundred and twenty-one additional people were killed, depending on which news accounts you rely upon."

Are you comfortable with that? Because it's only going to get more intense if no one speaks up.

Image credit: Reuters


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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