Big Questions About Drones

April 3rd, 2013

Drones in the Headlines

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing in February entitled “Drones and the War on Terror,” Republicans and Democrats united in calling for greater scrutiny of the government’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones. According to The Huffington Post, there is “bipartisan interest” in subpoenaing the Justice Departments’ legal memos justifying the government’s use of drones. “Members from both sides of the aisle expressed frustration that the administration has ignored their requests for more information” about the use of drones to target and kill suspected terrorists.

The issue also took the spotlight earlier that month when John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to be the director of the CIA, appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation hearing. Protestors from the peace advocacy group Code Pink disrupted Brennan’s opening statement, calling for an end to the classified drone program that he helped design while he was the White House chief advisor on counterterrorism. The protestors were removed, but the issue stayed front and center. Brennan sought to assure senators that drone strikes are legal and that the government goes through “agony” to avoid “any collateral injuries and deaths.” Despite his attempts, few senators seemed satisfied. TIME magazine senior correspondent Michael Crowley reports, “Democrats Dian[n]e Feinstein and Ron Wyden complained that the Obama administration had been too secretive about the drone program’s very existence,” while “Republicans pressed Brennan on whether the Obama administration might be killing terrorists without trying in earnest to capture them because of newly limited interrogation and detention policies.”

People are debating about drones not only in the context of overseas counterterrorism but also in domestic law enforcement. In The New York Times, Somini Sengupta observes that drones “can be used to track fleeing criminals, stranded hikers—or just as easily, political protesters.” Drones have research, personal safety, and even recreational potential. In a TIME cover story in February, Lev Grossman deems these unmanned flying machines “one of a handful of genuinely transformative technologies to emerge in the past 10 years.” Drones can be both awe-inspiring and unsettling. They represent technical prowess and advancement even as their uses raise complex legal and ethical questions.

Drones Detailed

In a piece for the PBS science series NOVA, Lauren S. Aguirre explains that drones have “been around in one form or another since World War I”; but their development has accelerated rapidly in recent decades thanks to “a host of technological innovations, including small digital sensors for navigation and flight stabilization, GPS, long-range data links, and lightweight materials.”

The RQ-1 Predator, a reconnaissance drone, is capable of carrying as much as 450 pounds of payload; boasts variable aperture cameras capable of seeing in the infrared spectrum; and can stay in the air, tracking targets, for as long as 24 hours. Combat drones are similarly advanced. Consider the MQ-9 Reaper: Its camera can read a license plate from two miles away, and it can fly for 42 hours even when armed with a thousand pounds of laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles.

In the civilian market, drones aren’t armed with the latest defensive technology; but they can impress in other ways. The Ohio Transportation Department, for example, owns a one-pound drone with a wingspan of 2.5 feet with a top speed of 22 mph and a battery that lasts only 25 minutes. It cost $15,000, but the department can use it rather than a manned aircraft (at $500 an hour) to map roads and bridges.

While drones aren’t yet “smart” in the sense of operating autonomously, that day may come. Developer Chuck Heber predicts that someday “UAVs will be able to do just about everything autonomously short of pulling the trigger.”

Differing Views on Military Use of Drones

Lev Grossman takes stock of how drone use is defining the way America wages war: “Ten years ago the Pentagon had about 50 drones in its fleet; currently it has some 7,500. More than a third of the aircraft in the Air Force’s fleet are now unmanned. The U.S. military reported carrying out 447 drone attacks in Afghanistan in the first 11 months of 2012, up from 294 in all of 2011.”

In his book Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, Newsweek investigative correspondent Daniel Klaidman notes that in 2009, President Obama “had authorized more drone strikes than George W. Bush had approved during his entire presidency. By his third year in office, Obama had approved the killings of twice as many suspected terrorists as had ever been imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay.”

On the other hand, the use of drones as weapons offers tactical advantages to the American military. As Grossman states, the United States can use drones to “exert force not only instantly but undeterred by the risk of incurring American casualties or massive logistical bills, and without the terrestrial baggage of geography; the only relevant geography is that of the global communications grid.” This unprecedented ability to operate has been credited with achieving major military objectives. The CIA gathered intelligence via drones, for example, on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan prior to the May 2011 ground assault in which he was killed. In June, a drone strike killed Ilyas Kashmiri, who was accused of organizing such terrorist attacks as the 2006 suicide bombing of the US consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, and the 2008 massacre in Mumbai, India.

Increasingly, the United States has shifted from striking well-known terrorists deemed to pose an imminent threat to conducting “signature strikes” against unknown, suspected militants. Greater reliance on drones introduces difficult questions. The September 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki—an American-born, radical Muslim cleric whom The New York Times called “perhaps the most prominent Englishspeaking advocate of violent jihad against the United States”—still fuels fierce debate over such strikes’ legality and morality. A Justice Department memo argues the government can order the killing of American citizens if they are believed to be “senior operational leaders” of al-Qaeda or “an associated force,” even if no intelligence indicates they are actively plotting an imminent attack. Civil rights advocates question this legal opinion. The very existence of the “kill list”—the secretive designation of terrorists as drone targets—alarms some observers. At the Brennan confirmation hearing, Senator Angus King (I-Maine) said, “Having the executive being the prosecutor, the judge, the jury and the executioner, all in one, is very contrary to the traditions and the laws of this country.”

Even as the Obama administration and Congress consider checks and balances such as a special court to approve drone strikes, international opposition remains. In his book The Thistle and the Drone, Dr. Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic studies at American University, argues that drone strikes in Pakistan have killed many more civilians than militants, breeding resentment and a desire for revenge among local tribesmen. A United Nations special rapporteur claims, “If other states were to claim the broad-based authority that the United States does, to kill people anywhere, anytime, the result would be chaos.”

Big Questions

Although local police departments are not flying armed, militarygrade drones, questions of law and ethics also follow domestic drones. No legal consensus exists on when and how local law enforcement can use drones to gather information or on what becomes of such information once it has been collected. Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, poses this hypothetical case: “If we have a bad guy named Waldo, and we have to find Waldo somewhere in that city, we will naturally gather information about all the people around Waldo, not out of malice but just because that’s the way it is. What happens to that information? Who owns it? Who stores it? Who shares it? Big questions.”

From the individual’s right to privacy, the integrity of America’s rule of constitutional law, and the nature of national self-defense and warfare, drones are provoking plenty of “big questions” that have no simple answers. The world, however, is watching to see how the United States will answer them.

Christians are called to engage such questions through the teachings of Christian faith, and the ways we answer them may differ greatly. As we grapple with complex and difficult questions about war, public surveillance, and the use of drones, we hold the vision of Jesus Christ before us; and we offer the hope of that vision to others as we seek to live God’s ways of mercy, justice, and love.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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