In the latest installment of this blog’s coverage of drone warfare, the editorial board of The Daily News in Jacksonville, North Carolina, is taking to task the American public’s silence on the Barack Obama administration’s use of drones in Pakistan and elsewhere.
When the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism released a report last Sunday claiming that U.S. drone strikes have killed dozens of civilian rescuers and mourners in Pakistan, the American media scarcely noticed.
Similarly, while other countries hotly debate America’s covert program of targeted assassination, its legality has never been considered by a U.S. court and is seldom discussed by Congress, which has ceded extraordinary authority over the drone program to the president and the CIA.
That silence could well come back to haunt this country. … It is past time for U.S. courts and the United Nations to explore the legal issues involved in targeted assassination and set rules that take into account advances in technology.”
You can continue reading here.
You might recall that a couple months ago I posted about an article on The Huffington Post in which author Michael Vlahos implied that technological advances in warfare, such as drones, that reduce human casualties are actually undesirable.
This broad concern about drone warfare — in which humans are not directing engaged in combat but control a flying, armed device from a computer thousands of miles away — has been the subject of several posts on this blog, including a full-length essay. If you’ve read any of those posts, you know that I find Vlahos’ argument, and arguments like his, deeply flawed.
However, many people are now worrying about an fresh development in the drone warfare story: new drones apparently might be able to operate without the control of computer-chair pilots. From the Los Angeles Times:
The Navy’s new drone being tested near Chesapeake Bay stretches the boundaries of technology: It’s designed to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, one of aviation’s most difficult maneuvers. What’s even more remarkable is that it will do that not only without a pilot in the cockpit, but without a pilot at all.
The X-47B marks a paradigm shift in warfare, one that is likely to have far-reaching consequences. With the drone’s ability to be flown autonomously by onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and destruction can be dealt by machines operating semi-independently.
Although humans would program an autonomous drone’s flight plan and could override its decisions, the prospect of heavily armed aircraft screaming through the skies without direct human control is unnerving to many.
“Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability,” said Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert. “This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military’s acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?”
Yet Sharkey clearly overlooks two important points mentioned above: that humans would both program and be able to override the drones. As such, I wonder if this new development poses any new ethical dilemma, or if drone opponents are simply continuing to oppose that which they find unethical. What do you think?
I’ve spent a good deal of time on this blog discussing the ethics of drone warfare. Recently, strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere have drawn major news coverage. Here are a couple articles of interest on this subject:
- The Wall Street Journal reports that Central Intelligence Agency has drawn back its drone campaign after both military and diplomatic officials complained large strikes were damaging America’s relationship with Pakistan.
- Daphne Eviatar argues on The Huffington Post that drone strikes are potentially illegal, unnecessary, and perhaps even counterproductive.
- Mirza Shahzad Akbar details in The Guardian why he is suing the CIA for allegedly killing innocent civilians through drone attacks in Pakistan.
- Human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith writes in the New York Times on the deadly human impact of drone strikes.
As always, your thoughts are welcome.
Are drone strikes inherently any more or less ethical than manned aircraft strikes? Is there, or should there be, an ethical distinction between launching missiles from half a world away and sending fighter jets to carry out such an attack?
Those are the questions I posed in a recent essay here. My answers were no.
Not everyone agrees. Indeed, I was just alerted to a new article by Ralph Nader, who condemns drones as inherently unethical and illegal. Much of Nader’s argument rests on the notion that drone strikes are only causing more chaos in unstable regions of the world. Nader quotes columnist David Ignatius, who wrote that:
"A world where drones are constantly buzzing overhead — waiting to zap those deemed threats under a cloaked and controversial process — risks being, even more, a world of lawlessness and chaos."
But again, I ask: is there really any ethical difference between the buzzing of drones and the roar of aircraft engines?
Last week, I wrote about the legal and ethical issues with the United States’ use of unmanned drones to carry out strikes on suspected militants in areas of world where the U.S. is not formally engaged in war, such as Pakistan.
Just two days after my essay, the New York Times reported that President Obama’s legal team is in the midst hotly contested debate on whether to expand the United States’ work to kill Islamic militants in Yemen and . According to the Times, it is “a question that could define the limits of the war against and its allies, according to administration and Congressional officials.”
From the story:
The debate, according to officials familiar with the deliberations, centers on whether the United States may take aim at only a handful of high-level leaders of militant groups who are personally linked to plots to attack the United States or whether it may also attack the thousands of low-level foot soldiers focused on parochial concerns: controlling the essentially ungoverned lands near the Gulf of Aden, which separates the countries.
The dispute over limits on the use of lethal force in the region — whether from drone strikes, cruise missiles or commando raids — has divided the State Department and the Pentagon for months, although to date it remains a merely theoretical disagreement. Current administration policy is to attack only “high-value individuals” in the region, as it has tried to do about a dozen times.
But the unresolved question is whether the administration can escalate attacks if it wants to against rank-and-file members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, and the Somalia-based Shabab. The answer could lay the groundwork for a shift in the fight against terrorists as the original Al Qaeda, operating out of Afghanistan and Pakistan, grows weaker. That organization has been crippled by the killing of Osama bin Laden and by a fierce campaign of drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where the legal authority to attack militants who are battling United States forces in adjoining Afghanistan is not disputed inside the administration.
By Michael De Dora
As you probably already know, the United States has increasingly relied on drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, to carry out warfare in recent years. Drone attacks have been particularly popular under President Barack Obama’s administration. According to the New America Foundation, there were 43 drone attacks between January and October 2009 (right when Obama took office), compared to just 34 in all of 2008 (when George W. Bush was still in office). The Obama administration has shown no indication that it will halt the use of drones, which are responsible for the deaths of many alleged terrorists.
The government’s increased reliance on drones has sparked public debate on two questions: Are drone strikes legal? Are they ethical? In my reading of various news and opinion articles on the issue, objections to drones come in three varieties:
1. Drones violate domestic law. Many, or even most, drone strikes take place in Pakistan or other Middle Eastern countries where the US has not declared war against a foreign state, but is instead working with local officials to root out terrorists under some “handshake agreement.” As such, many people feel drone strikes are an unjustified use of presidential and military power. US officials defend drone strikes on the grounds that they do not target a formal state, but a small group of people that have carried out attacks on domestic soil and plan to do so again. Thus, formal warfare laws do not apply (in other words: hey, it’s just the never-ending War on Terror).
2. Drones violate international law, which restricts when and how different states can engage in armed conflict. Yet, as with domestic law, there is no conflict between two formal states. Also, most drone strikes are carried out by the CIA, which as a civilian agency and a noncombatant under international law is not governed by the same laws of war that cover US military agencies.
3. Drones kill civilians. The Wall Street Journal reported via intelligence officials that since Obama took office, the CIA has used drones to kill 400 to 500 suspected militants, while only ~20 civilians have been killed. However, in 2009, Pakistani officials said the strikes had killed roughly 700 civilians and only 14 terrorist leaders. Meanwhile, a New America Foundation analysis in northwest Pakistan from between 2004 to 2010 reports that the strikes killed between 830 and 1210 individuals, of whom 550 to 850 were militants (about two-thirds of the total).
These arguments are nuanced and complex, and you can read more about them in this excellent article in the Wall Street Journal. But let us put these — and any discussion of just war theory — aside for a moment, for I think there is a more basic ethical point here.
Notice that the objections above do not inherently reject the use of unmanned drones. Instead, they make claims about international law, domestic law, and the accuracy of drones. This raises an important question: are drone strikes inherently any more or less ethical than, say, manned aircraft strikes? Is there, or should there be, an ethical distinction between launching missiles from half a world away and sending fighter jets to carry out such an attack?
It seems to me that there is no ethical distinction. The method in which war is carried out — by drone, jet, or a missile launched from a nuclear sub — is less important than the pretenses and justifications for the use of war in the first place (think: laws and just war theory). If an act of war violates domestic or international law, it does so regardless of how the attack was carried out — whether by a manned or unmanned aircraft. If an act of war kills civilians, one must certainly parse whether civilians were intentionally or knowingly put at risk, or whether it was an issue of collateral damage. But I have seen no indication that drones kill more civilians on average than manned strikes (your research is welcome). So why is there such an objection to, specifically, drone strikes?
In reading objections to drone use, I can’t help but feel an unspoken and lurking moral sentiment that drone use is especially wrong for no other reason than it removes a human element of war. That is, people reject the use of drones because drones remove a pilot (or, say, submarine crew) from harm’s way.
Consider these three passages. The first is from a story in the news outlet Christian Century:
With drones, operators sitting in front of computer monitors in Virginia and Nevada can target enemies halfway around the world. When their shift is done, drone operators retire to their suburban homes.
The second is from an essay in the Catholic magazine America:
Killing with drones is made easy for operators, who often work at great distances from the scene of attack. An Air Force ‘pilot’ may be in Nevada, while C.I.A. operatives are in Langley, Va., and others, including private contractors, are in Florida, Pakistan or Afghanistan. An operator may launch an attack from a trailer in Nevada viewing a computer monitor and using a joystick. The operators never see the persons they have killed. The pilot of a fighter jet flies over the place where the attack will occur and risks being shot down; a drone pilot never experiences the place where the attack occurs and knows he or she is in no personal danger. The operator can go home at the end of the shift.
The third is from an article on PBS.org:
Missile strikes launched from the comfort of Langley, Virginia, a half a world away from Waziristan, … to critics, remain morally problematic.
On one hand, this seems backward. Drones actually remove a pilot or crew from harm’s way, and so they would seem a safer way of carrying out war. Imagine being able to carry out attacks on highly dangerous terrorists and other dangerous figures without having to put your own people at risk of death. This would seem desirable.
On the other hand, perhaps there is something to the idea that warfare made easier means warfare more often; that the more we remove the human element from one side of warfare, the more that side becomes willing to commit to warfare. This does not seem necessarily true, as warfare has not increased — and actually might be decreasing — with increasing technology. But I am also not entirely sure it is a compelling argument against drone use. Rather, it seems an argument against any advance in military technology: from guns that allow troops to shoot their weapons from further away, to planes that allow forces to drop bombs from higher elevations, to even bulletproof vests that provide more safety to soldiers engaged in war.
But, as always, I offer my thoughts to the peer review of the public. What do you think?
I just happened upon an interesting news story on PBS.org that discusses in detail several proposed objections to and justifications for the use of unmanned drones during warfare.
Ethicists and religious leaders are beginning to challenge the morality of the drone program, arguing it violates international law as well as key precepts of just war theory. The Christian Century, for example, editorialized in mid-May (“Remote-control warfare,” May 18) that while the drone attacks have no doubt killed terrorists and leaders of al-Qaeda, “they raise troubling questions to those committed to the just war principle that civilians should never be targeted.”
An even more emphatic critic of the use of drones is Mary Ellen O’Connell, an international law professor at the University of Notre Dame. “Neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration has been persuasive about its legal right to launch attacks in Pakistan,” she wrote in “Flying Blind,” an article also published in America magazine. “Even with the legal right to use military force, drone attacks must also conform to the traditional principles governing the rules of warfare, including those of distinction, necessity, proportion and humanity.’’
CIA director Leon Panetta has called lethal drone technology “the only game in town” for going after al-Qaeda, and Obama administration officials have strenuously defended both the legality of the strikes in Pakistan as well as their effectiveness in killing suspected militants. They also deny the drones are responsible for an unacceptable level of civilian deaths.
Notice that the objections do not inherently reject the use of unmanned drones. Instead, they posit that America’s use of drones violates US or international law, or just war theory.
I think this raises an important question: are drones inherently any more or less ethical than manned aircraft? Is there, or should there be, an ethical distinction between launching missiles from the “the comfort of Langley, Virginia, a half a world away from Waziristan,” and sending fighter jets to carry out such a strike? Or is the method in which war is carried out — by jet or drone — less important than the pretenses under which war is being carried out in the first place?