Obama and Drones: Unkept Promises

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

I find deeply troubling the White House claim that their use of drones to assassinate suspected terrorists is "legal, ethical and wise". The release of a Department of Justice "White Paper" that purports to establish the Administration's legal justification for these killings only compounds my concern.

In response to the excesses of his predecessor, President Obama promised an Administration that would respect due process, rule of law, judicial oversight, and a government that would be transparent and accountable. The "White Paper" fails to deliver on this promise.

Legal critics point to the "White Paper's" vague criteria saying that it essentially gives the Administration the right to kill anyone (even a US citizen), anywhere (whether on or off the battlefield), anytime it deems it appropriate to do so. 

According to the procedures established by the Administration, a "drone kill" is justified if "an informed, high level [U.S.] official" decides that a "target is a high-ranking al Qaeda official or affiliate", who poses an "imminent threat of a violent attack against the United States, [where] capture is not feasible". The "White Paper" then dumbs-down the definitions of each of the operative terms ("high-ranking", "affiliate", imminent" or "feasible") to such a disturbing degree that the mandate becomes more-or-less open-ended.

All this has not passed without objection. Several Senators and Members of Congress are challenging the Administration's use of drones, and several commentators and editorial writers have delivered stinging critiques. 

Some have compared this Administration's approach to "drone kills" with the way the Bush crowd attempted to justify their use of torture. Both initially shrouded their policies with secrecy. Both commissioned legal opinions to validate their behaviors. Both used language to obfuscate; torture became "enhanced interrogation", while assassinations have become "targeted killings". And both maintained the inherent right of the Executive Branch to operate without oversight.

There is, no doubt, a perverse attractiveness to the use of drones to "take out" troublesome individuals. The technology is remarkable, allowing an individual thousands of miles away to engage in surveillance, to analyze data, and then, by remote control, to kill. It's easy and it doesn't require putting the lives of American military personnel at risk. 

Sure it's easy, but just because you have the technology that enables you to do something and are powerful enough to get away with doing it doesn't, by itself, provide sufficient justification. Nor does the preparation of a self-serving "White Paper" in which you give yourself questionable legal cover.

It is important to consider that the technology we now possess will soon be available to other states and non-state actors. So too the "legal justifications" we are now using to give ourselves absolution, may also one day be used by others. What would be our response to Iran or Hizbollah using drones to assassinate an Israeli defense official involved in planning a military strike against Iran? Or Shabab militants similarly "taking out" an Ethiopean official? Or what if Taliban operatives were to gain access to drones and use them against an American defense official visiting a neighboring country? If they deemed the target as a "high-ranking official or affiliate" who posed "an imminent threat" and so on?

Another deeply troubling issue raised by the use of drones is the subjectivity involved in the entire exercise. We are assured by Administration officials that they engage many layers of internal review and "agonize" over each and every strike. At one point they boldly stated that there were no instances where "collateral damage" occurred. Now, however, they admit that there have been "mistakes". Independent investigations from the U.K. and the U.S. estimate that of the between 2,000 to over 3, 400 who have been killed in drone strikes, "mistakes" have resulted in between 300 to over 800 civilian deaths. The term "collateral damage" is vile and antiseptic, masking, as it does, real lives lost, families affected, and entire communities traumatized. 

In fact, what we don't know goes much deeper. What was the evidence used to sentence to death those who were killed? How "high level" were the targets? And what exactly were they doing that made us determine that they posed an "imminent threat to the United States"? In the end, we are simply asked to "trust" that an "informed high level official" made the right call.

Finally, there are the impacts that this use of drones are having on affected populations, as well as on the legacy of this President. 

The use of overwhelming deadly force only increases the sense of alienation and powerlessness among peoples whose hearts and minds we ought to be seeking to win. Dexter Filkins writes in the New Yorker about the fear and trauma and the resultant anti-American fury created by the use of drones in a village he visited in Yemen. I have heard as much from Pakistanis.

We've come a long way from the President's 2009 "Speech to the Muslim World" in which he declared his willingness to address past failings and his openness to "a new beginning". It would be tragic if this and his other promises were betrayed and the final chapter of his tenure in office were to see him ultimately defined (as he currently is in some quarters) as the "drone President". The President should listen to his critics. He still has time to change direction and to return to the promises he made to the American people to correct the course taken by his predecessor and the pledges he made to the Muslim World in Cairo, 2009.

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