September 27, 2011

As the Drone Flies: War By 'Lethal Autonomy'

by Ralph Nader

The fast developing predator drone technology, officially called unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, is becoming so dominant and so beyond any restraining framework of law or ethics, that its use by the U.S. government around the world may invite a horrific blowback.

First some background. The Pentagon has about 7,000 aerial drones. Ten years ago there were less than 50. According to the website, they have destroyed about 1900 insurgents in Pakistan's tribal regions. How these fighters are so clearly distinguished from civilians in those mountain areas is not clear.

Nor is it clear how or from whom the government gets such "precise" information about the guerilla leaders' whereabouts night and day. The drones are beyond any counterattack - flying often at 50,000 feet. But the Air Force has recognized that a third of the Predators have crashed by themselves.

Compared to mass transit, housing, energy technology, infection control, food and drug safety, the innovation in the world of drones is incredible. Coming soon are hummingbird sized drones, submersible drones and software driven autonomous UAVs. The Washington Post described these inventions as "aircraft [that] would hunt, identify and fire at [the] enemy - all on its own." It is called "lethal autonomy" in the trade.

Military ethicists and legal experts inside and outside the government are debating how far UAVs can go and still stay within what one imaginative booster, Ronald C. Arkin, called international humanitarian law and the rules of engagement. Concerns over restraint can already be considered academic. Drones are going anywhere their governors want them to go already - Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and countries in North Africa to name a few known jurisdictions. . . .


Fred Branfman, "Mass Assassinations Lie at the Heart of America's Military Strategy in the Muslim World," AlterNet, August 24, 2010

Mark Hosenball and Kamran Haider, "U.S. Rejects Demands To Vacate Pakistan Drone Base," Reuters, June 30, 2011

Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller, "U.S. assembling secret drone bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, officials say,", September 20, 2011

Tom Engelhardt, "Sex and the single drone,", October 1, 2011

"US Army to fly 'kamikaze' drones," AFP, October 17, 2011

[Using military documents, press accounts, and other open source information, an in-depth analysis by TomDispatch has identified at least 60 bases integral to U.S. military and CIA drone operations.--Nick Turse, "America's Secret Empire of Drone Bases,", October 17, 2011]

Karen DeYoung, "Secrecy defines Obama's drone war,", December 19, 2011

Greg Miller, "Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing,", December 27, 2011

Andrew J. Bacevich, "From Liberation to Assassination in Three Quick Rounds -- Scoring the Global War on Terror,", February 20, 2012

Jacob Zenn, "US drones circle over the Philippines,", February 29, 2012

Briab Terrell, "The Drone and the Cross: A Good Friday Meditation,", April 5, 2012

[Today, the Pentagon deploys a fleet of 19,000 drones, relying on them for classified missions that once belonged exclusively to Special Forces units or covert operatives on the ground. American drones have been sent to spy on or kill targets in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya. Drones routinely patrol the Mexican border, and they provided aerial surveillance over Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In his first three years, Obama has unleashed 268 covert drone strikes, five times the total George W. Bush ordered during his eight years in office. All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians.--Michael Hastings, "The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret,", April 16, 2012]

[The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit earlier this year seeking Justice Department memos justifying the targeted killings, such as the strike against dual U.S.-Yemeni citizen Anwar al-Awlaki last year.--Tabassum Zakaria, "White House: U.S. drone killings legal to combat threats," Reuters, April 30, 2012]

[The lawsuits call on the government not only to categorize the strikes as war crimes and seek prosecutions, but also to appeal to the United Nations Security Council, the United Nations Human Rights Council and the International Court of Justice to stop them.--Michele Langevine Leiby, "2 Pakistani lawsuits pressure government to deal with CIA drone strikes,", May 14, 2012]

VIDEO: "With Control of Drone Strikes, Is Counterterror Chief John Brennan the U.S. 'Assassination Czar'?,", May 24, 2012

[Can the president legally do this? In a word: No.--Andrew P. Napolitano, "The Secret Kill List,", May 31, 2012

[It is assumed the Pentagon alone has 7,000 or so drones at work.--Paul Harris, "Drone wars and state secrecy -- how Barack Obama became a hardliner," Guardian, June 2, 2012]

Clive Stafford Smith, "We are sleepwalking into the Drone Age, unaware of the consequences," Guardian, June 2, 2012

["There's evil people in the world. Drones aren't evil, people are evil. We are a force of good and we are using those drones to carry out the policy of righteousness and goodness."--Glenn Greenwald, " Obama defender Rep. Peter King,", June 10, 2012]

W. J. Hennigan, "Pentagon to soon deploy pint-sized but lethal Switchblade drones,", June 11, 2012

Stephanie Nebehay, "UN investigator decries U.S. use of killer drones,", June 19, 2012

Jimmy Carter, "A Cruel and Unusual Record,", June 24, 2012

Greg Miller, "Families of Americans killed by drones file suit,", July 18, 2012

Doug Noble, "Fifty Years of US Targeted 'Kill Lists': From the Phoenix Program to Predator Drones,", July 19, 2012

"US drone strikes listed and detailed in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen,", August 3, 2012

Gareth Porter, "Cover-Up of Civilian Drone Deaths Revealed by New Evidence,", August 17, 2012

Terri Judd, "US 'should hand over footage of drone strikes or face UN inquiry',", August 20, 2012

[CRS says the Administration appears to have redefined the meaning of "imminence," one of the required elements for justifying the use of force in self-defense on the territory of another country. . . .

This legal memo from CRS, which is supposed to be secret and available only to members of Congress, concludes that the Obama administration's actions cannot be reconciled with customary laws of war and appears to supersede the supreme law of the land, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But the memo points to two other legal constraints being either ignored or unilaterally overruled.

First, the US laws which prohibit assassinations by government officials. . . .

And lastly, the Obama administration appears to be violating the decision of the Supreme Court in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld--John Glaser, "The Laws Obama is Breaking in His Relentless Drone War,", September 10, 2012]

David Rose, "CIA chiefs face arrest over horrific evidence of bloody 'video-game' sorties by drone pilots,", October 20, 2012

[U.S. officials said the database is designed to go beyond existing kill lists, mapping plans for the "disposition" of suspects beyond the reach of American drones.--Greg Miller, "Plan for hunting terrorists signals U.S. intends to keep adding names to kill lists,", October 23, 2012]

Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Karen DeYoung, "CIA drone strikes will get pass in counterterrorism playbook, officials say,", January 19, 2013

[Aside from the moral ugliness of violent covert action, its record as a national-security strategy isn't encouraging. On occasion, interventions have delivered short-term advantages to Washington, but in the long run they have usually sown deeper troubles. Lumumba's successor, the dictator Joseph Mobutu, may have been an ally of the United States until his death, in 1997, but his brutal rule prepared the way for Congo's recent descent into chaos. Memory of the C.I.A.'s hand in Mosadegh's overthrow stoked the anti-American fury of the Iranian Revolution, which confounds the United States to this day. Foreign policy is not a game of Risk. Great nations achieve lasting influence and security not by bloody gambits but through economic growth, scientific innovation, military deterrence, and the power of ideas.--Steve Coll, "REMOTE CONTROL: Our Drone Delusion,", January 19, 2013]

["the United Nations, an institution created to eliminate war, is giving its approval to a new kind of war, as long as it's done properly"--David Swanson, "A New Kind of War Is Being Legalized,", October 23, 2013]

"Secret memos 'show Pakistan endorsed US drone strikes',", October 24, 2013

Gareth Porter, "The Blowback From Killing Mehsud',", November 8, 2013

DOCUMENTARY: "Unmanned: America's Drone Wars',", November 1, 2013

Heather Linebaugh, "'I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on',", December 29, 2013

Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald, "The NSA's Secret Role in the U.S. Assassination Program,", February 10, 2014

"I Was Beaten, Tortured: Pakistani Anti-Drone Activist Karim Khan on Being Abducted by Masked Men," Democracy Now!, February 28, 2014

John Zarocostas, "Over U.S. objection, U.N. Human Rights Council votes to probe legality of drone strikes,", March 28, 2014

Spencer Ackerman, "41 men targeted but 1,147 people killed: US drone strikes -- the facts on the ground,", November 24, 2014

"Army Chaplain Reads Resignation Letter to Obama," Democracy Now!, June 3, 2016

Dennis J Bernstein, "Calling Out Drone War as a War Crime,", June 8, 2016

[The Bush administration launched the assassination program in October 2001 in Afghanistan, expanded it in 2002 to Yemen, and went from there. Under Obama, with an actual White House "kill list," the use of drones has again expanded, this time nine-fold, with growing numbers of attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, as well as in the Afghan, Iraqi, and Syrian war zones.--Rebecca Gordon, "An Illegal Military Strategy Disguised as Technological Advance,", July 18, 2016]

Marcy Wheeler, "Are There Any Limits on Obama's Drone War, Really?,", August 9, 2016

back button