WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — Has the Obama administration opened up a “Pandora’s Box” of problems with its use of drones in targeting terrorists overseas?
This past week, the White House went publicly on the defense over its use of drones.
“[I]n order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives, the United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al Qaeda terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones,” John Brennan, White House counterterrorism official, said Monday during a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
Brennan says targets are chosen by weighing whether there is a way to capture the person against how much of a threat the person presents to Americans.
He said the use of drones was ethical because “only military objectives may be intentionally targeted and that civilians are protected from being intentionally targeted.”
The use of drones by the United States has caused ire among the international community, especially in Pakistan.
According to a New America Foundation report, between 1,785 and 2,771 individuals were killed by 296 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. Of those killed, between 1,492 and 2,300 were militants, leading to a non-militant fatality rate of 17 percent.
“Drones depersonalize the act of killing,” Joshua Foust, fellow at American Security Project, told CBSDC. “That’s where a lot of objections come from. It’s seen as a remote-controlled process.”
The use of drones in the CIA’s covert operation in Pakistan has caused friction between the two countries. Foust explains that because of this it delegitimizes local governments within the country.
“Drones are causing all kinds of problems gaining and holding territory. That’s purely a result of kinetic activities,” he said.
Countries have also been hesitant to host U.S. drone bases, such as Algeria, because officials worry about facing backlash from its own people.
“A lot of al Qaeda guys have been killed off, but there have been substantial political and social consequences because of it,” Foust said.
Those consequences could come from places like Yemen and Somalia, where drones have been used to strike terrorists.
“The government claims a really sweeping power to designate people for deaths without ever going through a court system,” Nathan Wessler, national security fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, told CBSDC. “When the government is killing people away from an active battlefield, the circumstances that you can use lethal force are very narrow.”
A drone took out radical American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last September. Al-Awlaki was accused of helping to plan the failed “underwear bomber” attack in December 2009.
Wessler says the use of these drones also raises the question about whether other countries can conduct lethal strikes.
“There’s really nothing to stop a country like Russia, Iran, or China from using armed drones and going after their own citizens, other countries or U.S. citizens if they determine them to be threats,” Wessler explains to CBSDC. “The U.S. is very eager to use drones in support of its targeted killing program now, but will be much less happy when other governments use drones in the same way.”
The use of drones – which are also being used to track illegal immigration along the Mexican border – will become the norm domestically following Congress’s passage of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act in February. The act would allow the FAA to license drones commercially by 2015.
Ben Gielow, government relations manager and general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Systems International, says the primary issue will be the safety of the airspace.
“It’s a difficult challenge,” Gielow told CBSDC. “The unmanned system would need to know what to do and be able to communicate with an operator on the ground.”
The use of drones domestically also raises the question about privacy.
“We want to create policies and procedures on how to use these,” Gielow said. “Police should have transparency to let the public know about how the data is collected. … The overriding issue is the Fourth Amendment with government intrusion into our lives. It doesn’t mean you’re allowed to perch outside someone’s bedroom window. The same protections will apply to an unmanned system.”
But that is exactly the fear the ACLU has about domestic use of drones.
“We don’t need a situation where Americans feels there is an invisible eye in the sky,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU, told CBSDC.
A recent case of this came to light when Seattle’s assistant police chief apologized to the Seattle City Council for not keeping the public informed about the use of drones, the Seattle Times reported.
“We probably could have done a better job in communicating to the city. I apologize for that,” Paul McDonagh, assistant chief for operations, told the City Council, according to the Times.
Foust, though, is worried about what could happen if domestic drones are armed.
“From a legal perspective, there is nothing problematic about floating a drone over a city. In terms of getting armed drones, I would be very nervous about that happening right now.”
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