Saturday, March 09, 2013

In defense of drones

A Chronicle editorial today ("A stand for American values") on drones praises Senator Paul's filibuster for bringing

much-needed attention to this nation's lack of a firm policy on drones. Neither Congress nor President Obama has taken this very seriously... So far, the White House has used drones to kill people---including at least one American citizen---only in faraway lands, and only people whom they deem "an imminent threat." But who decides what an imminent threat is? Where are the limits in a world of endless drone strikes?

There's no evidence that the government has ever considered using drones inside the US. That notion is way out there with the paranoid black helicopter fantasy. But there is evidence that Senator Paul's filibuster was a publicity stunt on behalf of his fundraising campaign.

"American values"? Not so long ago American values okayed B-52 bombing campaigns in Vietnam, along with napalm and free-fire zones where everything in a specific area was killed, including water buffalos. In World War II---the Good War!---Americans deliberately bombed German and Japanese cities killing many thousands of civilians.

There's evidence that the drone attacks are increasingly precise and causing fewer civilian casualties.

The reality: For something that's supposedly secret, the drone program gets a lot of publicity, probably because the paranoid right-wing Paul represents and the anti-American left both oppose it.

The care exercised by the president in carrying out the drone program was documented last year in a story in the NY Times:

...This secret “nominations” process is an invention of the Obama administration, a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia.

The video conferences are run by the Pentagon, which oversees strikes in those countries, and participants do not hesitate to call out a challenge, pressing for the evidence behind accusations of ties to Al Qaeda...Given the contentious discussions, it can take five or six sessions for a name to be approved, and names go off the list if a suspect no longer appears to pose an imminent threat, the official said. A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the C.I.A. focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes. The nominations go to the White House, where by his own insistence and guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan---about a third of the total.

Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy.

“He realizes this isn’t science, this is judgments made off of, most of the time, human intelligence,” said Mr. Daley, the former chief of staff. “The president accepts as a fact that a certain amount of screw-ups are going to happen, and to him, that calls for a more judicious process.”

In an editorial last year, the Chronicle mischaracterized the NY Times article quoted above: "With drone attacks, the targets are presented by a small group of security experts who prepared a kill list for the president. There's no vetting, judicial review or even the suggestion of debate." There's no "judicial review," of course, but the story actually describes a rigorous, painstaking process in picking drone targets.

The ACLU filed suit against the US government for killing American Anwar al-Awlaki:

On that front, perhaps no case would test Mr. Obama’s principles as starkly as that of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric and Qaeda propagandist hiding in Yemen, who had recently risen to prominence and had taunted the president by name in some of his online screeds...The cleric’s fiery sermons had helped inspire a dozen plots, including the shootings at Fort Hood. Then he had gone “operational,” plotting with Mr. Abdulmutallab and coaching him to ignite his explosives only after the airliner was over the United States. That record, and Mr. Awlaki’s calls for more attacks, presented Mr. Obama with an urgent question: Could he order the targeted killing of an American citizen, in a country with which the United States was not at war, in secret and without the benefit of a trial? The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a lengthy memo justifying that extraordinary step, asserting that while the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process applied, it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch. Mr. Obama gave his approval, and Mr. Awlaki was killed in September 2011, along with a fellow propagandist, Samir Khan, an American citizen who was not on the target list but was traveling with him.

Maybe the government should have parachuted an ACLU lawyer into Yemen to read him his rights before targeting him. Or should the US have waited until Awlaki successfully blew up an airliner before killing him?

One suspects that the political left opposes the drone strikes because they still see the US as the Bad Guys, and do Bad Guys have the right to defend themselves against those trying to kill them? Barbara Ehrenreich seems to believe this, as she calls the US "the aggressor" in her introduction to Medea Benjamin's book on drones:

Drones are of course the ultimate action-at-a-distance weapon, allowing the aggressor to destroy targets in Pakistan or Afghanistan while “hiding” thousands of miles away in Nevada. But this alone does not make them uniquely pernicious: Missiles and aerial bombardment can also be launched from great distances, by individuals who need not see the extent of the violence they inflict.

But this has been true for a long time. The bomber pilots who destroyed German cities, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki couldn't see the destruction they caused. Nor could the pilots who bombed Vietnam.

From the NY Times story:

Mr. Obama was heartened, aides say, by a letter discovered in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. It complained that the American president had undermined Al Qaeda’s support by repeatedly declaring that the United States was at war not with Islam, but with the terrorist network. “We must be doing a good job,” Mr. Obama told his secretary of state...

Yes, indeed. Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Africa are now very worried about drone strikes. The French in Mali recently recovered an Al Qaeda document analyzing their serious drone problem and proposing tactics to foil the threat, including manipulating public opinion (Hello, Code Pink!): 

I believe that foiling this strategy depends on three things: The formation of a public opinion to stand against the attacks, deterring of spies and tactics of deception and blurring...The formation of a public opinion against these attacks to instigate an alternative Arab and Islamic street. I think these measures are capable, with God’s help, of disabling the new strategy of the American army at the medium or long-range levels. This is not all we have. There is the golden solution...depending on the strategy of kidnapping in exchange for the drone strategy and we should not stop until they stop their strategy which will enable all the supporters of jihad to take part in defeating Petraeus and his new strategy. We start kidnapping Western citizens in any spot in the world, whether in the Islamic Maghreb, Egypt, Iraq or any other easy kidnapping places and the only demand is the halt of attacks on civilians in Yemen which is a just and humanitarian demand that will create world support and a public opinion pressure in America as they are being hurt again. We, therefore, aim at the core of the nation’s strategy which if failed, America, will accordingly collapse. We also are taking part in laying a block in the promising Islamic State in the Arab peninsula.

More on killing Awlaki in the Sunday NY Times.

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